I stare helplessly at the lines and dots on the makeshift cardboard sign that adorns most of the fruit and vegetable boxes. I can recognize the numbers, but I don't know if the kiwi are 1,000 LBP or 66 cents each or whether it is 66 cents per kilo or per 250 grams. Not being able to read the language is somewhat crippling my ability to be frugal, so I shrug my mental shoulders and drop three large kiwis into a thin plastic bag. I have to eat, I have enough money to pay 66 cents for a kiwi, and it's definitely cheaper than the imported grapes that I'm thinking are probably $10 per kilo, from the numbers scribbled in black marker in front of their box.
When I enter the fruit and vegetable market, I resign myself to paying the wrong price for something, coming home with an extra item I didn't pick out myself, and/or not finding the ingredient I need for a recipe I was planning to make. The process is simple enough. You choose your fruit or vegetable, put it in one of the plastic bags that are readily available all around the stalls, then take it to a weighing machine where a guy rapidly punches in the price per kilo and slaps a sticker onto your plastic bag. Then you take it to the cashier who rings it up for you.
The guy at the weighing machine doesn't watch you bag your items so he doesn't always know if you chose the best of the seconds, out at the front of the market where the two-day old produce is sitting, ready to be picked over, and cheaper than the fresh produce inside. He assumes, but he will occasionally ask, barra? as in outside? meaning did you get the aubergine from the cart outside or from the bin of better-looking vegetables inside? If there are multiple places to get the same vegetable inside the market, but again differing prices, he will point to the best fit and ask, hone? as in there?
That is the extent of my Arabic. I nod or hesitantly repeat the word, whilst pointing vigorously. Once I got brave and repeated the price, alph w khamas mille or one thousand five hundred. Most of the time I just smile and nod, my mind frozen in its limited vocabulary. And I think longingly, if only I knew what they were saying, if only my language skills were as good as my cooking skills. . .then I'd be just fine!