There are two ways I can drive to Fairfield. I can take the heavy traffic and too close lanes of Parramatta Road then the eventual congestion of the M4, or I can take the endless lights of the A22 through Ashfield and the back of Bankstown to come out the other end of The Horsley Drive. Either way it starts on West Street in the too big, too red 4 wheel drive. I miss the old one, a conspicuous brown-black Nissan Dualis we used to drive all over South West Sydney. Now when we drive around I can feel the eyes of everybody as the car screams RED! RED! RED!
Marhabar! I say sheepishly to R when I get there, hauling bags of ipads and bilingual books – the rounded curls of Karen Sgaw peep out above pictures of happy otters and the small lines and dots of Arabic dance above a little girl’s face. R throws up her arms for a hug, her red-lipped mouth upturned – happy with a dash of surprise. The only thing I catch from her flurry of words is Shlonk? Iraqi slang for How are you? Ana tamam I exhale, adding to it a dramatic sigh. One of the Lebanese mums looks over at me and starts in. ‘Alhamdullilah!‘ is all I catch. Now the jig is up and I revert to english – That’s all I know.
We’ve done this dance a few times before, since I started my Arabic classes a few months ago. Since I started trying to lessen the gap between us. They ask me how my Arabic is going, they giggle when I perform my well-rehearsed 2 minute conversation. I make the mistake of showing A I can read in Arabic and spend the next 10 minutes struggling to get through the front cover of a children’s book with my slow budding literacy. I tell them Arabic is much harder than English to learn. We all agree on this.
The women are doing Arts and Crafts today. S, a raven-haired lady with a walker, has brought in PVA glue and glitter. The other women have been saving up empty toilet paper rolls and everything is laid out on the cheap table cloths I bought from Kmart earlier in the year. S shows the other women how to fold the rolls and cut them, how to dip them in glue and glitter and press them together until somehow it is an ornament and no longer recycling. I am continually impressed.
I catch all this while I chase around H, an 18 month old with a mind of her own. Today there is no room for a rug and the children’s toys I usually try and distract her with. She only wants to run, usually away from me. Her fringe is long now across her forehead, six months ago it was sparse but has since grown thick. We are old friends now, H and I. I know that her favourite toy is a wooden stick with donut-shaped circles of different colours and sizes. She also likes Mr Koala, grabs him close to look at before hugging him and exploding into fits of giggly happiness. But she gets restless and does not want to be stuck indoors. I don’t blame her. She runs inevitably to where her mum sits, weaving around the legs of chairs and tables. Her mum picks her up absent mindedly while handling a freshly cut roll. The other women are speaking passionately and erupting into laughter. I smile, understanding nothing and go to retrieve H as she runs off again.
There are many things I will never understand, even if I learn the language. Experiences I will never have, culture that will never be mine. The difference is palpable. Do they feel the same way as I do? Do they look at me with curious eyes? I wonder, I might never know. I put down H and excuse myself from the group, it’s almost 3 o’clock and I need to head to the library for the other program where most of their kids will be. Thank you Grace! H’s mum calls out and smiles. She never smiles at me, I think.
On the drives home from days like these the sun sets in my rear view, dead west. The suburbs disappear as I turn onto the motorway, the houses shrinking and sitting closer and closer together with every city-bound kilometre. The afternoon rolls around my head, I’m searching through conversations to compile an action list for tomorrow, sure I’ve forgotten something. The drive is necessary to unclog it all and take off the many hats I wear. The bluetooth on my phone doesn’t work so I let Triple J play and hope for minimal ads and minimal screamo songs. When I remember I’ll take a deep breath in and it’s as if all day I had forgotten to breathe at all.
By the time I turn into West Street it’s usually dark, no five-toned sunset lighting in the mirrors. The lights in the building are still turned on but I know it’s mostly empty. There will be a few IT guys lurking around and a few stray workers on the other floors. Tonight the mother and son cleaners drive into the garage before me. As I get out the son grins flashing large white teeth, hello! he says and I reply hello! We don’t know each others names, despite the number of times we’ve done this dance. His mother’s face always looks like a battle between frowning and smiling that nobody has won. I smile at her, another anonymous face, and head home.