Here the Italians had married Eritreans and stayed in East Africa after the war. They called their children Cafe latté, after coffee and milk.”
We waited on Haile Selassie Boulevard, deciding where to eat, its namesake having annexed this coastal East African mountain range in the 1950s, after the United Kingdom’s soldiers from the British Isles, with the help of the Indian Army mustered into the World War II, took it away from the Italians after they had misbehaved by sending its tanks against the Calvary charges of the Ethiopians.
We bordered the Red Sea, thirty or so air miles away from Asmara, in Massawa, the Eritrean seaport, where it was 120 degrees or hotter normally, and 98 to 105 in the cool season. We were high in the mountains and back up long winding road from the sea, where we stood; we always had good cool spring like weather, which was seldom over 85 or so.
It hardly ever rained in Asmara, and the line of massive palms shaded cafes, with espresso machines and Italian snooker halls where I had my first cappuccino there in 1969, and marveled at the thick black coffee with cinnamon atop the foamy cream.
Here the Italians had married Eritreans and stayed in East Africa after the war. They called their children Cafe latté, after coffee and milk. Many still drove old Lancias, and Fiats from the thirties, long after Mussolini stomped around Rome. These cars were sleek short miniatures similar to the Fords and Chevy’s from the 30s. I marveled at them driving around in the dusty streets like it was thirty years before.
After a year there, three of us bought a ‘57 Chevy, my friends and I, then abandoning the gharry-cart drivers that whipped their skinny horses, that pulled the rickety carts and our GI asses around the town, the Italians called Piccolo Roma. We also toured back roads in Eritrea in our Black Bel Air. We once stopped and took pictures of a man leading five camels, we spoke our English talk to him, he had no idea what we were, and we gave our spare change of quarters and half dollars and dimes all silver to him, and he took it in his hand with a puzzled look. When we navigated around his camels I looked out the back window to see him look at the coins in his hand, then back to the Chevy pulling away, then back to his hand of silver, and then take up the rope to his camels and throw the silver over his shoulder as he began again to walk across the desert. We drove by baboons, and tiny antelope called dik diks in acres and acres of cactus and places where an American dollar meant nothing. In Asmara, the Eritrean capital, it was something. We were in the poorest nation on the planet, but soldiers of the richest.
We ate in old world in Italian restaurants, on privates’ wages, where in at least one of them, tuxedoed Eritrean waiters would serve us seven course meals, while the cripples begged on the Boulevard outside pulling their amputated stumps or useless legs on leather pads with blocks of wood. The seven course meals were an expensive night out and were only an expedition to be taken after payday, costing us each about seven U.S. dollars.
I probably did no good thing in my 18 month tour of duty there; save give beggars and children a little money. The Catholic Church bells, and the Muezzin’s call to prayer, competed in the twelve month spring time air with Coptic Christian priests, who walked the boulevard turbaned, waving black and white monkey tail swatters at the flies.
We drove by baboons, and tiny antelope called dik diks in acres and acres of cactus and places where an American dollar meant nothing.”
We were in Eritrea while Vietnam raged, and revolution likewise was in the background here as well.”
At the City’s eight thousand foot elevation, and at the end of the Boulevard and a right and to end on Queen Elizabeth Boulevard, all still lined with massive palms, an old Italian man had a restaurant with no waiters. He’d serve you and he spoke no English. He made fish in three different ways, and perhaps used that many types of fish, and you never knew which one you’d get. “Ah.., Pesce, Pesce, Pesce!” he would say, finally understanding we wanted fish.
Then we would wait and drink beer, and the fish would come, the meal was always wonderful, with fish from the Red Sea. We were in Eritrea while Vietnam raged, and revolution likewise was in the background here as well. The Eritreans since 1960 were fighting against the Imperial Ethiopians of Haile Selassie himself. During the brief British rule in the 1940s, some of the folks got a taste of something different than a totalitarian regime.
That day His Imperial Majesty’s police, had caught a rebel ringleader, performed a quick trial, and strung him up by quarter inch steel cable on a hand crank winch, attached to a pole and a davit, in a back alley behind the court and in the early afternoon. Someone down the hall in our barracks witnessed this and described the grisly scene in detail.
That evening, we waited on Haile Selassie Boulevard and had argued about which restaurant to go to, and the old man’s fish fell on disfavor. We ate at the other end of the Italian made Boulevard that night. While we were dining elsewhere, the Eritrean Liberation Front brought automatic weapons to the old man’s Café, and killed the Judge and the Prosecutor and five customers in several outbursts of gunfire, in revenge for their freshly executed comrade. The next day we who wanted fish, felt strange and lucky. We waited one month before returning to that Café which had several new tables, and a freshly plastered wall, but wonderful Italian fish; where the Chef went through the same ritual.
“Ah.., Pesce, Pesce, Pesce!”he said, before disappearing into his kitchen.
It was to be another twenty years before the Eritreans had a nation and changed the names of the streets in Asmara. In the spring of 1970, we were always mindful of home, and mindful that this was not home— American girls kept writing us letters.
The next day we who wanted fish, felt strange and lucky.”
Photo Header by Sander Hoogendoorn