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first person

Illustration by Camilla Teodoro

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“Omelette? Scrambled? Sunny?” The waiter approaches my table, ready to take my breakfast order.

“Oh, scrambled, please.”

“One side or two?”

“Um, scrambled? Like an omelette, but ...?” I make a hopeful stirring motion with my hand.

“One side or two?”

“Ah. Two, please.”

This is not the only time I will encounter a communication gap during my business-mixed-with-pleasure trip through Ethiopia. One of the compelling things about travel is that it knocks one a little off-kilter, out of the comfort zone, sometimes right into the “why did I think this was a good idea” zone. Patience is required. But all’s well that ends well: My eggs arrive scrambled, more or less as expected.

My adventure began in a 1,700-year-old Tigrayan church carved into the side of a mountain cliff. The scenery and views on the climb up the steep path were worth the effort, but as I enter and my eyes gradually adjust to the dim rays of light filtering through narrow windows, I see magnificent, colourful frescoes of Biblical stories: St. George slaying the dragon, Mary and the birth of Christ, the Last Supper, and more angels than could possibly be needed to guard us from evil. The priest obligingly holds up a candle to illuminate the relief of a Greek Orthodox cross chiselled into the domed ceiling centuries ago. He motions to me to open a massive olive-wood door that leads into an inner chamber, and smiles at my feeble attempt and waits patiently. I put more shoulder into it but it doesn’t budge. The priest winks as he threads a piece of string into a large barrel which fits snugly into an opening I hadn’t noticed before. Somehow, the barrel catches a latch on the other side and the door magically begins creaking on its hinges. At the end of the visit, I reach into my purse for a small tip, but my efforts at discreetly extracting money from my wallet go awry; I completely bungle it and the bills explode out of my wallet. The priest smiles good-naturedly while he waits again, and his patience calms my fumbling fingers as I look up and smile back.

Not only is the pace of life slower in Ethiopia, but this is a country that measures time in its own distinctive way. Many use a 12-hour clock, with one cycle from dawn to dusk, and the other cycle from dusk to dawn. I need to be clear when I am meeting someone – is that 9 in the morning or in the afternoon, local Ethiopian time?

There are 13 months, and an eight year difference in the calendar. Confusing? Of course, but you’ll get used to it. If the internet isn’t working now, just wait an hour or two. No hot water? Maybe you can manage with lukewarm for the moment. When will the power come back on? I think this afternoon. Just like my scrambled eggs, one side or two, there’s really no point in asking for further clarification; one must have a certain faith in destiny, the knowledge that, with a little patience, everything will eventually work itself out as it should.

And then there is the coffee ceremony. Although I had seen this traditional way of making coffee in restaurants and hotels, I was unprepared for it to interrupt our business meeting. But it’s part of the Ethiopian tradition, a slower way of life, that I was beginning to get used to. Our discussion about supporting women entrepreneurs, which was moving along briskly a moment ago, suddenly stops. Phones are left unanswered while a young woman enters the office with all the necessary equipment. Fresh grasses are laid on the floor. They represent rebirth and the bounty of nature. Green coffee beans are washed three times, then placed on a large, flat metal pan over a wood-burning fire. The beans sizzle as they hit the pan and begin to turn brown, giving off a freshly roasted aroma. Everyone leans in to savour the fragrance and show their appreciation. Nothing is hurried; we simply watch as the ancient ritual unfolds. Crystals of incense are placed on a clay burner and time slips into another dimension. The woman methodically stirs the beans, and the watchers occasionally murmur words of encouragement or advice, I’m not sure. A kettle is placed on the fire while the beans are ground in a wooden mortar and pestle, and when the water starts to boil, the grounds are carefully tipped in. She reaches into a plastic cabinet and pulls out five espresso-sized china cups, selecting the ones with the fewest cracks. She washes them three times in a pail of water, the first to rinse off the dust, the second to more thoroughly scrub, the third to rinse again. At last, the coffee is poured, three spoons of sugar are added, and everyone is carefully handed a cup. A large chunk of bread and three cups of coffee are considered polite; the first cup is the strongest, the third bestows a blessing.

Little has changed over time as Ethiopians gather to celebrate religion and shared community. The traditions are a perfect representation of the patience and pace of life in this country, and I might just have learned something along the way.

Debra Scoffield lives in Toronto.