Pigeons on the same dome

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The window of my room faced an old stone church whose mossy and quiet domes swarmed with pigeons. My desk was next to the window. In every early morning, it greeted sunrise with ribbonss of sunlight that covered the bellfry, and in the evening, it watched sunset landing on the cross. On winter days, the snow fell on the stones of the contemplating church. In summer evenings, rains pattered on the stained glass that formed colorful pictures. With such a dreamy and peaceful window, I would have studied tirelessly all day long. However, behind me was a door which opened into the common corridor of the dorm and also opened into a miniature, lively world.
My second floor had sixteen rooms with people of ten nationalities, four religions and three races. In rush hour, the kitchen smelt a mixed flavor of desert sheep, African grilled chicken and Vietnamese fish sauce. Every morning, the corridor was full of hasty footsteps, rushing showers in the bathrooms, noisy greetings and wishes for a nice day. In the evening, the corridor sounded with the carefree laughter of black guys, noisy quarrels of the white guys and soft chatters of the yellow guys. At night, when power in the corridor was cut and replaced by the shimmering red light of bedside lamps, the murmuring prayers of Muslim girls and guys started. These were the sounds of peace. During wartime, I couldn’t study because of quarrels for favorite TV channels in the reading room, complaints among girls in the bathroom for mistaken clothes, and arguments and blames on one another for making something dirty in the kitchen. Particularly, it was neither the sound of peace nor war, but it gave many people a headache. Should somebody take his lover home for overnight sex, his neighbors also had a sleepless night.
In the miniature world on the second floor, I liked to communicate with the black people and made friends with two women. Vic, married with two sons, came from Madagasca. She once went to China to study, so she was quite familiar with Oriental culture. Vic was pretty nice and thoughtful. She had velvety, romantic and emotional and sensual eyes. Opposite to Vic, Rita embodied the genuity, light-heartedness and simplicity of primitive Africa. Rita was from Cameroon, and her body was proportionate and healthy. She was married to a “Cameroonian-Belgian”. Her husband Philipe was living illegally in Bruxel. On weekends, Rita took a train from Liège to the capital to see her husband. Philipe went to Liège to see her sometimes. I also communicated with the white people only through routine greetings. They were not friendly even with people of the same race. People from North Africa had light complexion and spoke Arabian. They were nice but pretty mysterious. Particularly, I had a fellow who was a college lecturer. Viet was a man of few words and never showed what he really had in mind. He rarely gave personal ideas, and he liked slogans and self-criticism. Except me, he almost never communicated with anybody else. .
Right after our first meeting, Vic, Rita and I became a trio despite occasional misunderstandings due to cultural differences. We built our close friendship on our sincerity. Being classmates, the two women often went together. I often came back to the dorm earlier because economics classes were not far from it. The two women studied aquaculture, so they had to take the train to a small town nearby which had man-made lakes. When I wasn’t too busy, I cooked Vietnamese dishes and waited until Vic and Rita come back so that we could share the food.
- What dish is this, Tam? – Vic asked carefully, raising her well-trimmed eyebrows – It looks strange, and it tastes strange, too.
- Well...it is called...- I sounded embarrassed – Actually it has no name, but I’m sure this is a particular Vietnamese dish.
- I’m suspicious! Do confess, did you make it up? – Vic didn’t spare me – You don’t look a cook, did you make it up?
Vic often unmasked me, and she was proud of her knowledge of Chinese culture. Rita let me be questioned. She was hungry after school and she comfortably took the food without being invited. Rita ate a lot in an easy manner. She poured the remaining food in the pan until it was empty.
- Don’t use those small canes to get your food, Tam! – Rita suggested – I save time taking it like this!
- How many times did I tell you these are the chopsticks, not small canes, do you remember?
- Ha ha ha – Rita laughed light-heartedly with her mouth full of food – It looks like juggling. I must admit that you Asians have your own traditions and cultural identity, so you still use chopsticks. We Africans have been westernized.
- Before the French occupation, what had the Africans used to take food?
- Nothing. No fork, no knife. Just fingers!
Rita often made me laugh with her genuine words. She often said about her love for her husband and even their affairs.
- Why are you Vietnamese afraid of sex – Rita sometimes asked while plaiting her hair with her ebony hands – It’s an indispensable part of life. See Vic? She is so hungry for her husband that she became skinny.
- Exactly – Vic agreed – After a two-day weekend with Philipe, Rita comes to class on Monday brimming over with energy and speaks up all the time. Myself, it’s too little!
I knew Vic told the truth. Viet had told me once he bumped into Vic in the corridor when he was going to the bathroom at night. She invited him to her room for a drink. Viet said “Vic looked so tense”, and Vic whispered in my ear “Your fellow is funny. He said he was over thirty, but he had never been kissed. He studied so hard that he became dumb, and it was hard for him to find a girlfriend – She laughed, jerking her neck back - But he knows “that stuff” “cash on delivery!”. At first, Viet was afraid of the black people because they didn’t look familiar. Whenever I cooked Vietnamese food for Vic and Rita, I always invited him, but he said “Their black body kills my appetite!”. Gradually, because he was looked down by the white people, he started to respect the sincere African friends. He was afraid to talk big with me because he didn’t want to be criticized. Finally, his demand for exchanging confidences went to Vic.
- Don’t you know, Tam; although Viet looks dry, he’s very emotional – Vic told me what she knew – He said although he was a college lecturer, his salary wasn’t high and he hardly supported his parents back home. It’s just like the situation in my Madagasca. I asked him why he didn’t quit and worked for foreign companies. He pouted “I don’t want to serve the capitalists”. I was so surprised. Does working for money mean serving? Sounds like black slavery. I asked “Do you hate capitalism?”, and he nodded. I asked again “Didn’t your graduate fellowship come from a capitalist organization? Aren’t you studying in a capitalist country?”
- Did you ask that question? And what did Viet answer?
- He kept silent!
On the eve of the Lunar New Year, people in the dorm wished Viet and me “Happy Chinese New Year” when they met us. Viet frowned and grumbled “You should say lunar new year because besides China, there are many other countries celebrate this occasion!”. Those people were embarrassed and frustrated “Anyway, China is the largest country. Who knows about your tiny Vietnam!”. Viet turned his back and grumbled “But my country has the tradition of defeating large countries including China, Japan, France and the U.S. You young people know nothing about history!”. As soon as he went to his room and slammed the door, the foreigners gathered around me “Your fellow is too aggressive! We wished him happy new year, but he got mad at us.” I smiled reconcilingly “He’s a real patriot!” and ran to the kitchen, pretending to take care of my pan of boiled meat and eggs. I asked Vic, Rita and Viet to join me for the end-of-lunar-year dinner. Vic wore a long dress. She turned her ebony back to Viet and asked him to zip it up. Rita wore a reddish wig, boots and bright lipstick on her thick lips.
- Happy New Year! – Vic said excitedly – When I was in China, I also had a chance to celebrate the eve like this, and it was so much fun! The Chinese new year has more traditional meaning.
- You still call it Chinese new year? – Viet grimaced.
- Easy, man. Don’t be an extremist! – Rita took one spring roll and munched it – Gosh! Fantastic! Words are no big deal. The thing is to realize the truth. China is apparently more famous than Vietnam, and “Made in China” stuff are everywhere. Look, the wig and the shoes I’m wearing have CEE quality, but they are made in China.
- This morning Tam and I went to a Vietnamese supermarket to buy food for dinner tonight. We saw Thai fish sauce and rice everywhere. Vietnamese products were very rare – Vic added – Your country is small, poor and unknown.
- Same for my country – Rita was making spring rolls with her two hands – Our guys are proud of Cameroonian soccer, but I think the country’s still very poor.
- My Madagasca has a lot of beautiful sights – Vic raised one of her curved eyebrow – But the tourists like to buy only postal cards of poverty. The whites in this dorm keep asking me about the famine, civil war and floods.
- They ask me about lions, zebras and deserts – Rita complained, chewing her food.
Viet gave a distorted smile. He gulped down his wine and moved his arm “Anyway, I’m proud of my country. You should be proud of yours, too!”
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Summer came. The sun shone tirelessly. Until 10 at night, the sunlight was still slowly covering the bellfry. The dorm was as hot as an oven. Rita asked me to go for a walk in the park for fresh air and lesson learning. A few African guys were half-naked, exposing their fit and muscular bodies like bronze statues. The white girls wore scanty clothes, tanning their skin which is as pale as aspirin pills. The term exam came at the time with the World Cup. The whole dorm churned up, and almost nobody could have a good sleep in this hot period. The manager was so worried that he prepared new regulations and stuck them all over the corridor. The big sentence that said “Watching soccer matches in peace among peoples” loomed in front of the TV room. The female cook at our canteen made beef soup and gave each person a bowl for free, providing some energy for the exam period. Rita whispered to me “This ‘dole’ will last for a week, which helps!”.
I wasn’t a soccer fan, but could not help being affected by the common atmosphere. When Senegal won, all black people applauded noisily. When Italy lost, the guys of the country of spaghetti blamed the defeat on everything, smashing the innocent gabbage cans. The Arabian community supported Turkey, country of the same religion Muslim. Viet and I was asked which team we are fans to, and we shook our heads “None”. However, when Korea won, they congratulated us on the victory. I took an exam the same day Belgium lost 3-0 to Brazil. Our teacher called us in after he had watched the match. He looked at the list and called our names as “Maroc, Tunisia, Turkey, Rumania, Vietnam. All were foreign students. Luckily, there was no Brazilian!”. However, the whole group failed at the end. In the bus I saw the Brazilians paraded, blew trumpets and sang happily. The Belgians looked at one another and shrugged, smiling. I dragged my feet to the dorm with a dropping face. Hearing my story, the Chilean guy on the first floor said consolatorily “On behalf of Latin America, I beg your pardon!”. I burst into laughing and went to my room to slurp on the cold beef soup left over from yesterday. Then I opened the window wide to watch the old bellfry of the church and wondered why God created his children in so many races and gave them so many languages. The pigeons continued to walk comfortably on the quiet mossy dome. Who knew in this bird community there was a discrimination between black and white feathers?
The exam ended, and the dorm rushed again into a new studying stage: retaking exams and defending the theses. I was no longer interested in cooking. I often ate nothing and drank milk only to survive. Vic and Rita came back late in the evening, and they said they had to take care of the fish in this decisive period. Viet sometimes asked me to join him for pasty rice. Seeing me chewing with difficulty, he sighed “How can you give birth to a baby eating like that. You should go home and get married. Why torture yourself studying!”. Everybody asked one another when they met in the kitchen “How many exams you must retake?”. George from Congo broke the record with eight exams being retaken. He said unworriedly “Because I watched soccer all the time!”. Vic and Rita also had to retake few exams. They looked tired buy not so tense.
- Hey Tam! – Vic warned me – Why do you become so mad and upset, and your wrinkled face is just like an orang-utan’s.
- Don’t imitate the whites. They are always serious and grumpy withour a smile – Rita rubbed her curly hair – What is their wealth for and what are their rich countries for when they wore such grimace. Looks like they are suffering from…chronic constipation?
- You shouldn’t think about material values and shouldn’t worry about degrees – Vic gave me a glass of juice and said lovingly – Just try your best and that’s it! When I came here, I had to leave my husband and children at home, and I miss them so much. We have to try, and I’ll pray for you.
I came back to my room and continued to study. Until four in the morning, I heard my neighbor from Maroc waking up and murmuring his prayers. I closed the book and closed my eyes half asleep. I heard Vic’s footsteps and then Rita running hastily. They had to travel a long distance for class, so they woke up very early to catch the train. It was six already. I sat up again and walked out onto the corridor pacing to and fro to relieve the tension. The guy from Maroc was walking out of the bathroom:
- You’ve looked pale these days! Did you sit up late studying? I heard you coughing from time to time.
- Zakaria! – I yawned without hiding my mouth – I’m totally exhausted. Please ask Allah to bless on me!
- I don’t pray for a heretic.
- Why are you so selfish?
- But I’ll pray for you to become a Muslim first – Zakaria stroked his wet hair – Then I’ll prey for your safety!
I was not sure whether he was joking or not. Zakaria took my shoulder, smiling friendly:
- Actually we have the same Father up there. I’ll pray for you.
Last days of the exam period drew near, and everybody in the dorm encouraged one another. It seemed at this point nobody thought about nationality barriers, races or religions. We helped one another print, decorate and bind the theses. Each morning, when somebody dressed formally with suit and black shoes, the others wished him successful defense. Vic looked calm befor her defense, but her result was not good. Rita was pretty nervous, but ended up with a grade that was out of expectation. My defense day came lastest. Seeing people in the dorm returning relaxed with a sigh of relief, saying “Finally, it’s all over!”, I became more anxious. And then I did successfully, not knowing it was Zakaria’s Allah or Vic’s God who helped. When I told Viet about this half-jokingly, he snorted “The best way is to believe in ourselves!”
I still kept the Bible offered by Vic, Rita’s colorful Cameroonian traditional dress and Zakaria’s paper on which he wrote my name in Arabian calligraphy. Although it was hard to see one another again because we all came from poor countries, we said goodbye to one another happily. Viet stayed longer. He sent me an email saying my room was occupied now by an 106cm Italian guy.
I imagined about the tall “successor” to my small room. How could he manage with a bed made for people of the same size? And, when the morning sun landed on the bellfry and the pigeons came pecking at the window for food, what did he give them? The pigeons of mine, of Vic, of Rita, and of others coming from afar for knowledge... From the quiet and mossy dome, they had witnessed so many chaotic activities during the days of struggle. Surely the pigeons would change their taste to spaghetti. How could the guy find them the cold rice scraped out from the tiny electric cooker?

Duong Thuy