Carla Grissmann and Her Yogurt of Choice
An Incident in the Life of the Celebrated Humanitarian, Carla Grissmann (1928-2011)
On the first morning I ever spent with Carla Grissmann, she froze in front of the dairy case at the Student Commons. Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan a few months earlier had forced Carla out of her ten years in Kabul, but it had not slowed the surging popularity of yogurt in the USA. “That brand mixes the fruit flavor right into the yogurt,” I said, pointing to one tier of the individually-sized paper cartons of yogurt on the racks. “Danone, on the other hand,” – I pointed down a rack – “puts the flavoring in the bottom of the cup and the yogurt on top, so you can mix in as much as you do or don’t want.” We were looking at strawberry, blueberry, vanilla, peach, raspberry and cherry. Bright clumps of each fruit drawn on the cartons were made cheery by the pure white of the dairy case lighting.
Carla stared into the case, not moving to open it. She had appeared at my university office late the previous afternoon and we had chatted briefly, then arranged to meet for breakfast bright and early. That sunny June morning, as we strolled from my office along flowered campus sidewalks, passing century-old brick buildings, the languid days of summer session just beginning, I pointed out the late-blooming azaleas and fading rhodies that lined the classrooms, and she had mentioned a garden she liked in Afghanistan, a cultural touchstone. It was the first time I heard her mention Afghanistan.
“Personally, I prefer that brand,” I said, pointing up a tier to Nancy’s Yogurt. “It’s made in Eugene – the last town you went through before you got to Corvallis yesterday.” Carla had taken the bus to Oregon from San Francisco, eschewing the direct flight into Eugene that I had recommended when she phoned to arrange her visit. “Nancy’s is fresh and it’s plain.” But it was as if Carla hadn’t heard me. She still stared at the case, an elegant middle-aged woman dressed in black, reflected in the glass behind which the array of yogurts spread up, down and across the racks.
The Student Commons was typical for its time, a grill area for ordering eggs and bacon and the like, and self-service counters for pastries, rolls, fruit, coffee, tea and cold-case items. We had already navigated tea and pastries, she choosing a red-label Lipton’s tea bag to my coffee, and I a whole-wheat bagel to the plain breakfast roll Carla had plucked from the pastry section. I was holding the tray, waiting for Carla to pick a yogurt…and waiting.
“I know there’s yogurt in Afghanistan,” I said. “I’ve been there.”
Carla came out of her reverie, inhaling sharply. “Oh,” she said and touched my arm just above the tray. “Hardly anybody in the US even knows where it is. You’ve been there?”
I nodded. “Let’s just each get a Nancy’s Plain,” I said, “and there are some packets of honey over by the checkout.” I pulled the yogurt out of the case, Carla’s hand still lightly on my other arm. Then we sat at a table near the windows, looking out on green and leafy flowering cherry trees that were past their bloom, and talking of the Afghanistan of the late Sixties, when we had not quite crossed paths. I learned that she had been back in the US only a few days, and that very shortly, she would head for her project in Sri Lanka – the reason for her coming to consult with me. I also realized that she was deep in cultural shock.
We talked about the yogurt a few days later as we waited for the bus that would take her back to San Francisco and her friends at The Asia Foundation. “There were so many yogurts,” Carla said. “Standing there, it just hit me that there is so much choice in America. For everything. For anything. I was feeling overwhelmed. In Kabul, we’re just glad if there’s one of something. We never have to choose. We just buy what’s there. How do you live like this?”