Catherine was our special guest from Dublin and audience favorite this past storytelling season at Meeet & Tell. She kindly gave me permission to reprint her recent story “Ask a Middle Aged Woman“. (See below)
Keen observers have an eye for the mundane
In the story, Ms. Brophy describes the commotion she causes when she arrives at a small Chinese village and asks for directions. She describes the “dude“ of the village, the local children who respond to “Ni hao“ and the first woman the author confronted with the question: “Where is the great monastery?”
What I find remarkable is how she succeeds to notice the importance of an unimportant detail:
“The egg-woman was letting them know what happened and that she was a major player in this neighbourhood drama.“
It is such a mundane detail and had we been there on the scene, we would have noticed this woman’s reaction too, although perhaps unconsciously. Through Ms. Brophy’s eyes, we become aware of a universal truth: the human need for recognition.
Because she went inside the scene and tapped into her knowledge gained from living, she could release the spirit of that “egg woman“ in this simple, poignant description.
Ms. Brophy is a compelling storyteller and writer because she has honed the skill to describe how she saw, not what she saw. Her powerful descriptions breathe life into characters and situations, which then trigger our own stories. We sit in the audience and a film begins to roll in our heads.
It’s not a matter of finding fancy words, it’s finding the right words. As Mark Twain once said:
The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
In the slowness of summer, dedicate time to improve your writing skills. You will quickly notice the difference this fall when the Meeet & Tell storytelling season begins on September 16th in Berlin.
This story has been reprinted with kindly permission from Catherine Brophy. Copyright Catherine Brophy 2016.
ASK A MIDDLE AGED WOMAN
by Catherine Brophy
One of the great joys and challenge of travelling independently in China is that you cannot read street signs, bus destinations, public notices or labels in supermarkets. And in the great cities distances are huge. You look at a map, reckon your destination is two blocks away, but an hour later you’re still walking.
One of the places we went to was Xi An, to see the famous terracotta army. We didn’t realise then that Xi An was at one time, the hub of the eastern world, the end of Great Silk Road. Foreign merchants, travellers and adventurers all flocked there to barter for silks and spices, painted scrolls, precious stones, jade, pearls, rare inks and medicines. In the taverns and teahouses men haggled and bargained, told travellers tales and exchanged philosophies over cups of green tea and rice wine.
Our hotel was in the main square, beside the Bell Tower, where, in the cool of the evening, fathers brought their children to fly long strings of kites that criss-crossed the twilight and quilted the sky. Just down the street we discovered a deep arch carved with an Arabic sign. Underneath it, peddlers squatted beside cloths spread with toys, watches, beads, fans, hair clips, sunglasses and socks. The men wore white crocheted skullcaps. The women wore brimless white cotton hats perched on their heads, or boat-shaped, black velvet ones. Some wore the hijab. Many of the people had a Arabic cast of features. This was the Muslim Quarter.
The street beyond the arch was narrow and lined with trees. On either side there were small shops and restaurants, and the pavements were crowded with stalls selling skewers of meat, sweets, dumplings, nuts, spices, seeds and every gewgaw and cheap fecky-la you can think of. Crowds meandered about shopping, eating and greeting their friends. The few cyclists and cars that braved the street had to slow down to walking pace and thread their way carefully through the people. The smell was intoxicating, a heady mix of flowers, herbs, spices, hot oil, sizzling meat with a subtle undertone of sewers and drains.
We’d been told that the Great Mosque was well worth a visit, we followed a sign and set off down a narrow street past men on carrier bikes with hand-written pieces of cardboard attached, advertising their services as delivery men. We walked and ewalked and walked in the humid heat and it dawned on us that no one was trying to sell us anything and the people were no longer wearing Arabic clothes. We passed laughing family groups sitting on low stools outside their shops, young men playing cards on a cloth on the ground. Old men in their vests playing Mahjong on upturned crates. We passed an old woman sitting on the pavement, eating rice from a tin bowl. We passed men sheened with sweat stirring huge steaming woks. We kept walking on, after all, distances in Chinese cities are huge. Eventually we came to a cross roads and didn’t know which way we should go.
I have three rules of thumb when I get lost in a foreign country:
1 Find a sensible –looking middle-aged woman and ask for her help. If she doesn’t know, she will know someone who knows.
2. Sign language is pretty international.
3. Everyone, everywhere in the world enjoys watching tourists make eejits of themselves.
I noticed a middle-aged woman behind a small stall. Beside her there was a barrel with a fire in in it and on top she had a huge pot of eggs boiling in tea. She looked both sensible and pleasant. I approached her, and, in my best sign language, I asked,
“Where is the Great Mosque?”
She clearly didn’t have a clue what I wanted. I repeated my pantomime several times. Eventually she called to a young man across the road. He sauntered over. This guy was a dude, cool as all-get-out, hair jelled and spiked to distraction, mirrored shades, a tan leather jacket with the collar turned up, black t-shirt and jeans. She said something to him and pointed at us. He came over and made the international gesture for
“What’s your problem?”
“Where is the Great Mosque?” I gestured back
He wandered into the street and jumped in front of the next taxi to flag it down. By now heads had appeared at all the windows and groups had gathered in doorways to gape at the foreigners. The dude talked to the taxi driver. The taxi-driver got out of his cab, took out his mobile and handed it to the dude. The dude dialled a number.
Children had gathered all about us with their big black eyes and the cute black fringes.
“Ni hao.” We greeted.
The children jostled and giggled surprised that these strangers could actually speak.. The crowds had by now had increased. The egg-woman was letting them know what happened and that she was a major player in this neighbourhood drama.
The dude talked at length into the mobile and then brought it over and handed it to me. I held it to my ear. “Hello” I said apprehensively.
“Speak English.” Said the voice at the other end, “Speak English”
“Where is the Great Mosque?” I asked.
“You give my friend.” Said the voice.
I handed the mobile back to the dude who put the phone to his ear and listened. Enlightenment dawned and he announced our query to the assembled multitude. Everyone started talking at once, smiling and laughing and giving us directions in signs. We had to go back the way we’d just come, one, two, three turns and then we go left and the Great Mosque would be at the end of that street. As I said, a middle-aged woman, international signs and the willingness to make a fool of yourself can work wonders. We thanked them and, as we turned to leave, everyone waved us goodbye as though we were long lost cousins.
We found a mosque but it clearly wasn’t The Great Mosque of Xi An. There was a lot of plastic and broken windows patched with cardboard. But by now we were tired and wanted to find somewhere to sit have a cold drink. We headed back the way we had come.
About two yards from where we had first set out we came across a sign we had missed pointing to the great Mosque. It was barely spitting distance away! We sat in the beautiful courtyard listening to the Muezzin calling the people to prayer and admiring the very Chinese garden and very Chinese swooping tile roofs. As we watched the faithful remove their shoes and enter the Mosque we agreed that, however beautiful the mosque was the best part was getting lost.
Dyane Neiman is the Moving Speaker. She helps business professionals at all levels, who are challenged to speak in public, in English. She always encourages people to get better at speaking in public, by SPEAKING IN PUBLIC! Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
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