By doctor’s orders I wear a surgical face mask outside of the house. It’s green, three-ply, and has elastic bands that wrap around my ears. It has an accordion style construction that allows expansion so as to pull it down below my chin and up above my nostrils. It sits on the bridge of my nose, and near its top edge it has a piece of wire that bends to fit snugly on the bridge of the nose and down the sides onto the cheek bone. This serves to close the gap there. But despite that exhalation still escapes at the top and often fogs my glasses, which are not equipped with a defrost system. That’s just one of the annoyances of wearing the mask. This kind of mask is a more comfortable step down from what I used to have to wear. It was a thicker, form fitted white thing with a built in filter near the front. The smell from the inside was repulsive. The green one is a bit more tolerable in that regard.
Apart from walks with The Dog in the woods, my getting out has been limited, again by doctor’s orders, to going to the clinic for check-ups and getting meds from the pharmacy. I wear the mask in the taxi—funded by public insurance—to and from the doctor and to the pharmacy. My friend the driver is used to me carrying out my side of our conversation through the mask. He is Afghani and has a son a year younger than mine. Our weekly topics range from children and schools to the Taliban and ISIS. The few times I have been in town people have mostly politely ignored the existence of the mask. Children often stare, but adults in this culture mostly do not smile at strangers on the streets and seem trained to look past people. In the pharmacy, of course, the employees are professional. They are as indifferent to me as they would be to any other customer.
I’m a foreigner. This might not be obvious to locals by appearance but as soon as I begin to speak it is. My accent marks me as other right away. MF has managed to escape the curse of the accent, but I never will. But the locals are very gracious about this. I’ve made an effort to learn the language, and I can make conversation respectably. I get nothing but praise and encouragement for my efforts. Being a foreigner, however, means that I have learned to check my own responses when something I do or say elicits a very different response than I expected. Like the one Monday after Easter when I joined MF in the back yard. He decided to throw knives against a board that I put up for him. I made use of the time to push a non-motorized lawnmower around the yard. Neither activity lasted long. Very quickly a neighbor began yelling at us about the racket we were making. We were only dimly aware that the Monday after Easter was a holiday, and not all aware that that meant it was a quiet day. People here take their quiet time very, very seriously. To the loud Americans the very idea of quiet time is strange. My initial thought was that the neighbor was being outrageous. But I had acquired enough local cultural capital to put together quickly that we were the outrage. So, I hurried MF inside, where chastened we huddled very quietly for the rest of the day.
So, I am not always sure how to respond to people. Sometimes I seek confirmation from local friends. I’ve been assured, for example, that another neighbor two houses down in our row is the one being outrageous when she yells in response to my firing up the gas grill. The face mask has presented me with new interpretive problems. I mentioned that people don’t tend to be warm with strangers. One exception is if you are with a dog. Strange dogs will often be greeted, and typically that requires some acknowledgement of the dog’s strange human companion. Twice in the last two months while walking in the woods, The Dog and I have been approached by perfect strangers, and I have been asked after no more than a cursory greeting if I were wearing the mask because I am especially sensitive to something in the woods. Both times I was taken aback. To me the familiarity seemed odd, almost rude. The people might as well have been asking how much money I earn. In both cases, however, I begrudgingly put together an elevator speech version of my recent health history.
Afterwards, as self-entertainment, I’ve wondered, what else could I have said? A few thoughts have crossed my mind. Perhaps, “No, no, the mask is so that I don’t infect you with my deadly disease.” Period. Silence. Or maybe, “No, I’m not from around here, and I’m just not sure how clean you all are.” But, of course, the idea that I should take offense at the strangers’ questions just might be a cultural miscue on my part, like making noise out in the yard on the day after Easter.