“You should stay in an expensive hotel and call room service. Or maybe not.”
Our Land Cruiser is bumping along a dusty street past barefoot kids. We’re going to a market in N’Djamena, capital of Chad. It’s extremely hot today. But I need to buy a woollen sweater. My driver Isaac looks puzzled. “A woollen sweater, Mister Mike?” So I tell him I forgot to pack one and I get cold at night. Isaac nods. He knows just the place.
We stop and walk through narrow aisles packed with fruit and vegetables, baseball caps and gadgets from China. An elderly Arab is sipping tea from a tiny glass, squatting on a wooden stool among a pile of faded jeans and sweaters. His white turban is wrapped tight, his skin wrinkled like a dried date. He smiles as we approach. I check his sweaters: 75% polyester. I tell him in French that I would prefer wool. He reaches under his stool and pulls out a beauty. Wow. It’s an Aran, a real one. I can tell from the way it hangs over his arm, heavy and creamy-white, like a dead lamb. I check the label and, sure enough, I discover that it’s hand-knitted from County Galway, Ireland. I pull it over my head. I can smell the lanolin in the wool. Perfect fit. I want it.
The wrinkled Arab wants $16. It’s peanuts for this sweater but you should always haggle so I ask for Best Price. He says $15 and sips his tea. I try $14 and he yells: “Pay up or get lost, that’s a good one and you know it!” I give him $15. He’s not smiling anymore, but I am, back in the Toyota. Isaac looks puzzled until I tell him why.
The traditional Aran sweater is named after the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. It’s a fisherman’s sweater with distinctive patterns, usually a creamy-white colour, or báinín in Gaelic. When I was a kid in Liverpool my Mum would knit them, but not now. I show Isaac the patterns in the wool. “The honeycomb symbolises the industrious bee. The basket symbolises the fisherman’s catch. The diamond is for good luck. See?”
Isaac clicks his teeth. “You were lucky today, Mister Mike.”
He’s right, as usual, and when I drape my new sweater around my shoulders that night on the hotel terrace, I’m as happy as a dog with two tails. It feels almost brand new. I doubt it’s even been washed. But how did this beautiful Aran travel 3000 miles to the middle of Africa and arrive in such good condition?
My luck does not last long. A few days later, my Aran falls on the floor and gets ugly grey lines of dust up the front and down the sleeve. Damn. I phone room service and ask if they know how to wash wool. The little voice on the other end says: “But of course, Mister Mike. This is a 4-star hotel.”
The young guy from the laundry is very keen when he knocks at my door, but I explain just in case: “This is an Aran. You must take care. Use lukewarm water and wool-friendly soap. Squash it in a towel to remove the water. Dry it flat, over a day or two, OK?”
He assures me he knows how to wash wool and disappears down the corridor, swinging my precious sweater like a dead rabbit. I lie on my bed to watch footy. I phone my Mum and tell her about my amazing Aran and the young guy who knows how to wash it. She replies: “What are you, nuts?”
She’s right, as usual, because the phone by my bed rings two hours later and a little voice announces: “Mister Mike, it’s ready. Shall I bring it?”
I reply: “My sweater? No way. It can’t be ready. It won’t be dry.”
“It’s dry,” says the little voice. He hangs up. I stare at the wall and say a word beginning with F. I say some more rude words when I open the door three minutes later because my Aran sweater is now the size of a teabag, except it has arms. I howl like a dying wolf. I hiss like a cornered cat. The air turns blue with my curses. The laundry guy says: “Is there a problem?” I ask him how he dried my Aran. He replies: “In the tumble dryer, like you said.” He leaves soon afterwards, before I can throw him over the balcony.
Next day I show my sweater to the manager, Claude. “Mon Dieu,” says Claude and agrees to pay me the cost of replacing it. I suggest he teach his staff how to wash wool, seeing his hotel charges $200 a night. Claude holds up my sweater and says: “It might fit a midget.”
On the Internet I find the company that made my Aran. An exact replacement costs €100. I click BUY. I receive the new one a few weeks later. It’s a beauty. The guy from the laundry writes me an apology about how he’s still learning and no piece of work is perfect. I write back: Thanks, do you know any cold midgets?
(This story was first pubished in FHM Romania, May 2011. It reappears here with kind permission of S.C. Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL ).