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Strangers with familiar faces

July 9, 2012

Spotting people who look like you is a game immigrants play all the time. I have always been able to spot someone Tamil in a crowd, by the frizz on their hair, the colour of their skin, the set of their face.

I was in Paris this weekend. A quick getaway to visit a journalist friend I used to travel with when we were both foreign correspondents in Nairobi. On Sunday morning we walked to her local market, to buy white peaches, little discs of goats cheese and heavy melons to eat sliced with parma ham. After shopping we stopped at a little cafe, with pastries from a nearby bakery . As soon as I looked up at the waiter, who appeared unobtrusively and quickly to take our order, I knew he was Tamil. As the Sri Lankan war went on for so long, it’s a reasonable assumption that anyone who looks like a first generation immigrant has known something of violence and loss, but people rarely talk of it. My local Tamil newsagent,who realised straight away that I was from Jaffna, always asks after my family, greets my son by his first name, and lets me pay him next time if I’ve not got quite enough change for the newspaper or half litre of milk. We greet each other with recognition but never talk about the war, or about home.

Other times it’s harder to know what to do . I would have been able to ignore the man trying to sell me faded and over priced roses as I sat with my cousin in a Venice square if I hadn’t realised, with that familiar pit-of-stomach feeling that he was Tamil, a recent refugee who looked exhausted, with a wild, lost expression in his eyes. Seeing someone look so familiar yet so haunted and unhappy, is awful. I just sat frozen, wondering what his story might be, but being a bit too scared to ask. My cousin, with more grace and presence of mind, bought the whole bouquet then gave it back to him so he could try to sell again to other tourists who would only see a hawker disturbing them as they drank their aperetif.

This weekend, I didn’t feel panic. The waiter seemed happy to talk. He was from Jaffna, he said, no he wasn’t married yet – maybe next year – and he had family in London and in Italy. He quite liked Paris, the job was fine, but in fact he was also a journalist, and edited his own Tamil language online newspaper. He wrote the address down on a scrap of paper, added his name in swirling Tamil script. I put it in my handbag and walked off, glad in an incoherent sort of way, that he’d found a life and a purpose among the fruit stalls and cafes and the Paris streets.

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