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The Poverty Line

poverty line
poverty line
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Saturday, 28 November 2015

At my grandparents’ house, circled by grandmother’s cousins like prey circled by hyenas, as they commented on how motherhood had made me prettier – although I couldn’t recall having met them before – and stuffed twenty euro bills in my puzzled toddler’s hands, I couldn’t take my eyes off the platters that lay on the baroque-style table. It was just as I remembered it from my childhood. There was at least a kilo of dried nuts – king hazelnuts, modest almonds, oily walnuts, salty pistachios, humble roasted chickpeas – a chock chip cake, pralines, buns, cookies, middle eastern sweets, coffee, liqueurs – and all this just for two guests. I instantly shrank to my ten-year-old self, only now I couldn’t help but start calculating the cost of this array.

It had never occurred to me before that I grew up in an affluent larger family, as there was always a certain amount of whining and an unfaltering dedication to hard work. This was the main ailment of my grandparents’ generation, the once-hungering generation that had survived a world war and a civil war: Working like there’s no tomorrow and building houses for getting old in and for passing on to the children seemed to be hardwired in their brains. No cinema, no disco, no holidays in unknown lands, just the occasional taverna and visits to relatives. Yet, these people were considerably wealthier than I will possibly ever be.

    I was so shocked by this exhibition of excess that I had to tell my husband the moment I got out of there. “Is there an ambassador visiting?” He asked. “That’s how people used to receive their guests,” I replied. “How come we only get biscuits when we visit?” He said laughingly, and I couldn’t but share the laugh and shake my head.

The image of the table blurred my thoughts as I slided with clear goals through the supermarket aisles, grabbing milk and choosing pre-cut salad. I only had a few items, so I stood at the express line. I had briefly noticed the man in front of me before, as we had entered the store together. He was rather tall, but something must had struck me as strange with his clothes, as I came to realize later.

The man had emptied his basket at the register and moved on to the front to fill his bag. I could now see both his purchases and his face. He wore a worn Lacoste varsity jacket, and that must have been what had subconsciously struck me before: I hadn’t seen such a jacket since the early nineties. His jeans were also an eighties cut and acid-washed. This wasn’t a statement: He couldn’t care less. Everything he wore was handed down to him.

Under his jockey, his oily brown hair was crudely cut with household scissors in front of a half-broken, aged mirror. All these I had seen before, but only now did I come to verify and add significance to, through the narrative told by his countenance: His was the tormented, pale face of malnourishment. The slight tremor of his lower lip attested the dilapidated state of the senses of time and identity in his mind, distinct in the chronically homeless. His hands were very clean, and there wasn’t a single hole in his clothes or shoes, as his existence screamed in self-sacrifice: “Don’t pity me! I don’t want your charity!”

On the counter, there were three packs of instant noodles and a bag of apples. This would be his breakfast, lunch and dinner. This was his long-term diet. Comparing that to my grandmother’s soiree, my mind high-wired on the thin poverty line, and did what it is set to do in similar situations: It sank into vertigo.

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