School days

For some reason, though we were Swedish, my parents got me started in an American school, The Ahlman Academy.

Well, I guess there was not any Swedish schools around but on the other hand in Sweden, kids do not start in school before they are at least six years old. So to be sent of, on my own, aboard the school bus, at the age of four, was somewhat an unorthodox thing to do.
A faint memory of the bus stopping outside our gates and my dad sending me of, comes to mind, but it could also be a construct, based on some photos I have seen.

I do remember sitting in the class room having lunch though. The desks were placed in a U-shape around the walls facing the center of the room. In front of the blackboard sat the teacher at her desk and I think she was reading a book to us. I had sandwiches wrapped in tin foil that I fooled around with. I rolled a small ball with a piece and stuck it in my nose and then I couldn’t get it out. It went further and further in the more I tried to pick it out, and the sharp edges made my nose bleed. I don’t remember how it all got solved, but I remember the commotion sitting in my bench bleeding from my nose and catching everyone’s attention.

Sometimes we had lunch outside too, because I have a recollection of sitting on the low wall surrounding the playground, trading the contents of my Dick Tracy lunchbox with a fellow girl. She had a lunchbox shaped like a barn with a handle on the roof. The roof tipped open and then she could open up the front as well.
Lunch boxes seemed a lot more fun and creative back then. And isn’t it strange how traded sandwiches always tastes better than the ones you got from home?

In the schoolyard there where slides and swings as usual but there were also some bright coloured wooden crates to play with. Red, blue, green, yellow and much too big and heavy for us small kindergarten kids to move. One day however, when we entered the yard, the older kids had stacked them up in a big pile like a hut in several floors and we were all happily climbing around in and out of it. I surely remember the excitement, but I think that play was stopped shortly after. I can understand why, if that stack collapsed and one of us toddlers would happen to be under it, there might have been some serious injuries.

There is a funny story about my school time.
A Finnish boy started and could not speak any English and his parents were a bit worried about how he would manage the school day. When they came to pick him up after school they asked the teacher about how it went. They got the answer that it worked very well because I had helped him all day translating.
To some maybe Finnish and Swedish might sound the same but in reality it is two completely different languages. Swedish probably has more in common with English, than it does with Finnish. So how this was even possible is a mystery. Either I was a language genius, which in that case never showed itself again, or I managed to understand him in some other way. Anyway it was the beginning of a close friendship as we became buddies and he did learn english eventually. Adding to it may have been that he was the same age and lived only a couple of houses down on the same road as me.

I think his name was Juha, but I do not recall the surname and sadly he is not in the yearbook so I could look him up. We used to walk over to one and other to play when it was not school days.
One day when Juha came over to me he was told that I could not come out and play, because I had got chickenpox. He then ran home an cried out to his parents the outrageous injustice, that he also wanted to have chicken in a box.

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Getting around

When ever my mother went to the market she used her red bicycle and I would be seated on the rear rack. It was a harsh ride in to the market but a smooth one back as I then was seated on top of the clothes and fabric she bought. Groceries were hanging in bags from the handlebar, but I suppose our servant helped out too.

These small expeditions were not without risk. Not that there was a Taliban govern but the religious fanatics where still present and the stories of women getting acid thrown in there faces did exist. I believe my mother used to wear a scarf when in unfamiliar public spaces.

For public transport there were busses, packed with travellers not only on the inside but on the outside as well. When boarding the luggage was thrown up to a catcher on the roof, stored and lashed to a rack. God knows how they managed to sort it out later when somebody had to get off. Like much in Afghanistan it was managed with a sort of chaotic organisation that I believe you actually must be native to understand. The busses where colourful art pieces with paintings and attached ornamented boards in all kind of spaces available. The delight in the creations diminished once you realized the purpose, as invocation to all kind of Gods to survive the roads. In the end, not really an alternative for a westerner with kids and a minute understanding of Farsi[1].

Taxi would be a better choice but you could not take just anyone, you would have to inspect it to be somewhat safe to ride in because the standard could, to say the least, vary. Anyone with a pair of rolling wheels could make a living for himself, it seemed. I remember seeing a taxi with only a funnel for gas tank with the driver popping out to fill up the funnel from a can each and every mile. Cars missing hoods or fenders were not unusual and leaking radiators were somewhat of a consistent standard.
On top of that, Kabul was scarce with street names so you would have to know your way around, giving directions to the driver in Farsi, daste raast, daste chab, robaroo, as in turn left, turn right, strait ahead.

I don’t think that we owned a car in Kabul but I remember a beige tin box on wheels parked in the street outside our house one time, and that we were to ride in it somewhere. We did trips out in the country sometimes and we must have done it by car but I do not remember the details. We did one trip over the Khyber Pass to Peshawar, in Pakistan. I remember overlooking a railyard from a bridge watching huge black steam locomotives maneuver the train sets in clouds of steam and black coal smoke. In Sweden all trains where electrified or operated by diesel engines so this image has burnt in to my retina and I’ve never seen something close to it in real life since.

Afghanistan did not have a railway. They relied on roads, many built by Soviet aid, camel caravans and airplanes to connect the different parts of the country. My mother used to tell me a story about a tourist trip she did with some of the other housewives to Herat. That’s in the other end of the country so they had to travel in a small airplane. On the route the pilot had other stops and at one time he went down to deliver some eggs to a crowd of people, in what looked like a desert. The party of women, in desperate need to pee, stepped of, but at this place there was no toilet, no buildings, no nothing. Not even a tiny bush to hide behind, so in the vast plain they formed a ring as a screen and then stepped inside one after another to ease the pressure. Where all the people of the place came from remained a mystery, as they took to the skies again.

On school days I was picked up by a yellow and black American style school bus. I have one memory of riding it. Along with other school kids there was an Indian girl, a couple of years older than me, who had an egg saved from her lunchbox that she ate during the ride home, but she didn’t like the yellow. I found that curious and we probably had a discussion about it. Anyway she gave me the yellow after eating all the white. This is a strange memory entirely. I wonder why that got stuck in my brain.

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Memories of food and sickness

I have a memory fragment of a dinner. I don’t know where or why but there are both Afghans and foreigners around the big table. In the middle is served big plates of rice cooked in saffron mixed with shredded carrots and raisins. And there was hot pepper soup, the kind so spicy hot your eyes water, and me amusing the group by enjoying a full bowl of it.

I remember going to the baker to buy Nan bread. Seeing the oven in the form of a small hut, how the baker flattened the dough on a floured cushion and then another baker, with his turban wrapped around his head and face against the heat, mounted the dough to the ceiling of the hot oven and pulling out the already baked bread. Thinking back I’m impressed by the heat tolerance of that guy, having half his body inside a hot oven in and out all day.

I also remember eating huge water melons. Well, those memories might actually have been boosted with images from our photo album. I can’t really be sure on them, but it feels like I have recollections of melon slices that needed both hands to handle.

As we were rich foreigners we had servants. Only one at the time but I think we went through three servants during our stay. Not that we really needed them but we were expected to have servants. It was seen as greedy not to employ a servant if you had the money to do so.

I called all the servants “Kalle” and as they succeeded one another, they were numbered so our second employed servant became “Kalle du” as for two in Farsi[1]. I believe he stayed the longest with us. I have a fragmented memory of our family visiting his family outside his small house built of mud and straw as most Afghan houses.

“Kalle du” helped out by translating to my mom in the market and finding good groceries. Even in Afghanistan there were frauds. One trick was to inject water into fruit like oranges to make them seem extra juicy, but the water was taken from the river, commonly used both to wash laundry and as a toilet, so there was a serious health risk to eat those. He also helped out watering in the garden and sewing curtains from beautiful fabrics my mom bought on the market.
Inspired by the trips to the market I used to play street vendor, walking around with a pillow on my head shouting in Farsi, or at least something that sounded like Farsi, to sell my imaginary goods, to everyone’s entertainment. In particular “Kalle du” that used to laugh when I did my routine. I liked him and I believe he liked me, thinking I was a funny kid.

One day he bought me a lollipop from a candy vendor passing on the street. It was shaped as a big colourful rooster. I ran exited in to my mother to show this wonderful gift when she terrified grabbed it from me and poured boiling water over it until it collapsed into a malformed lump.

I can understand my mother. Hygiene wasn’t a priority here and after spending the first weeks in the country vomiting to the limit my parents feared for my life, they actually planned to give up and return home when I suddenly recovered, she was not prepared to take any more risks.

Memory flash: A trail of vomit puddles on the floor while I’m hanging out from the arms of my father carrying me.

But I clearly remember the emotional rollercoaster from happy excitement to deepest despair as I saw the lollipop melt.

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Fishing with my dad

I came across a series of images in our photo album that I actually have memories from.
It’s only fragments but I do remember happy faces, gibbering Afghans and again the colours. The amazing turquoise blue river floating through dusty, yellow gravel slopes. The river in the picture seems quite muddy though, I guess that’s what they really look like up front and not viewed from a distance.
It wasn’t only me and my dad fishing. The Afghans did too. And there was plenty to catch. I remember them pulling up flopping silvery fish hooked at the end of their rods in a constant pace and how they guttered and rinsed them on the river bank.
I can’t remember if my dad and I ever caught any fish, the images clearly suggest that we did but maybe it is someone else’s catch I’m carrying.

It must have been someone with us that took the photos. Surely it wasn’t my mother. I also find it hard to believe that my dad would take me on a trip only to fish. This must have been a part of his visits into the country inspecting something for his job, where I just tagged along.

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This was my world

Sadly I don’t remember the name of the street we lived in, or if it even had a name, but there were some more Scandinavian families on the same street. There was the Danish couple, Pranvik, next door. I fell from our garden wall into their rose bushes once. My mother had to pick thorns out from all over my body but anyway I must have been quite lucky because a fall from that height could easily have caused a lot worse injuries.
There was the Swedes, Stensland, across the street. The husband was quite a skilled amateur photographer, can’t recall his first name though.
And then the Finnish family, further down the road, witch I don’t recall the name of either but their son was a classmate and a tight playmate to me.
And there was an African family, I don’t even recall what country they were from but they lived next door to Pranvik, I think. They had two girls and I remember I tasted mashed Manioc[1] called “Fufu” served on corn leaves and were taught to eat it with my fingers, shaping it to a ball before stuffing it in my mouth and swallow.

It lived some Indian families along the street as well. One in particular that I do remember was the family right across. Their boy, much older than me, was over playing with me in my room. I don’t recall exactly what happened but I remember the feeling of being cheated on my favorite toy car. I probably cried out to my parents and my father followed me over to reclaim the toy. That family was a contrast to ours with lots of children in all ages and a burly father whom we had the discussion with before the boy was ordered to give back my toy.

It was a dusty little street and all the houses were surrounded by high walls making it impossible to know what it was like inside. The world I knew outside our garden stretched from our garden entrance to the right until the street turned to the left where the Finnish lived. I learned to ride a bike on two wheels on this street and from the crest of our wall I ruled this world. The wall was at least two meters high but in a corner of the garden there was a big compost that I climbed on to reach the top. Once there I patrolled it, feeling quite safe and in control of the surroundings.

My mother said that the Afghan kids were mean and threw stones at me when I was on the wall. I don’t think my mother ever really liked Afghanistan. She didn’t understand the people and couldn’t reconcile with the dry, desert-like land far different from Norway were she was born.
I always felt that the Afghans were a friendly, welcoming people and genuinely curious on strangers. The story about the mean Afghan kids I think originates from an occasion I have a memory of, but that my mother knows little about.
I was patrolling our wall as so many times before when a bunch of kids appeared on the street happily romping and playing with a big yellow gas filled balloon. They spotted me on the wall and wanted to share their joy stretching the balloon up to me so that I too could hold it for a while. They clearly offered me to be part of their play, quite different from my mother’s perception of mean kids. As it happened, I dropped the string and the balloon rapidly took to the skies and disappeared. The kids went mad. I was truly sorry but when you don’t share a language it’s difficult to communicate an apology. They armed their selves with stones and I felt it was time to climb down the wall to the safety in our garden. My mother probably newer saw anything, except the ending conflict with stones flying and me hurling down the compost to save my skin.

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A memory in colours

Something that remains clear and vivid in my mind is the colours. Quite different from the colours of Sweden where the palette varies by the seasons from deep green, deep blue, red, white and pale yellow in summer, to a scale of grey, grey blue and white in winter.
Afghanistan has a palette of sandy yellow, turquoise blue, dusty olive green and terracotta red.

This is a beautiful and dramatic country. A land crossed by rivers and streams but, as if the sand and rock repels the water, not giving the opportunity for lush vegetation to thrive.

I’ve always imagined the bright turquoise blue colours of the waters have an origin in the national gemstone of Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli. Grinded in to silt and stirred around in the stream, colouring the water. That of course is a purely romantic fantasy, every one knows the water gets it colour from the reflected sky and anyway, imagine the amount of Lapis Lazuli needed to tint all the waters. It would not be as expensive as it is if those amounts really existed.

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