My plans, or lack thereof

So… I’m leaving Dakar. Which I know sounds ridiculous coming just days after I posted a love letter to the city. I meant every word of it, and I’m sure I would fall even harder the longer I stayed. But sometimes you can’t be with the one you love. Continue reading

Cultural relativism in action

Do you know what these fully grown and otherwise normal adults are doing?

The Electric Slide.

Yes, the dance of my bat mitzvah memories is also apparently a mainstay at Electrafrique nights here in Dakar. I’ve seen the dance floor taken over by the Electric Slide twice now. Both times it started spontaneously with one or two people. Both times I watched in horror and then fascination as more and more people joined in, oblivious to the fact that the Electric Slide IS IN NO WAY COOL.

I think of this particular line dance as a vestige of my pre-pubescence, and the precursor to the Macarena. I blithely danced it nearly every weekend the year I was 13, wearing socks, a pouffy dress, and a training bra. I would not be caught dead doing it ever again, even in jest. And yet… a bunch of really hip Africans and Europeans seem to think it is the COOLEST THING EVER.

That, my friends, is a harmless but potent example of cultural relativism.

Have you experienced something like this recently? I’d love to hear about it…

Miluju Čechy (which may or may not accurately mean, “I love Czechs”)

I wrote to the Czech Consulate in New York to ask for advice re: getting my passport reissued to Ruth Fertig instead of Ruth Fertigová. They suggested visiting the consulate here in Dakar. The website that they linked me to provides that office’s information, including “telefon,” “fax,” “e-mail,” and something called, “provozní hodiny úřadu,” which is followed by, “po – pá 8.30 – 17.00.”

My excellent powers of deduction led me to believe that these were the hours of operation, and that “po – pá” must be the shortened versions of two weekdays. The entirety of my Czech vocabulary consists of the words for pancakes, potatoes, dumplings, Czech, I love you, thank you, how are you, mom, dad, and hello, so I started plugging weekdays into Google Translate. “Monday” is “pondělí,” so that accounts for the first day. I typed in “Tuesday;” that day starts with a u. “Wednesday” starts with an s. Thursday… well, I stopped short at Thursday. What the hell is this??

My awe for my father grew tenfold at the thought that he is capable of pronouncing such a thing.

And my adoration for Czechs in general also grew tenfold when I typed in “Friday” and Google auto-suggested “Friday I’m in love.”

I can’t tell whether this is a result of Eastern Europeans’ abiding love for the Cure or their tendency to embrace Western European and American pop culture 10-20 years after the original issue date, as though the Iron Curtain still existed. The latter sounds patronizing, I know, but it’s been my observation each of the 3 or 4 times I’ve been in the Czech Republic and the one time I was in Romania. Either way, I love the Czechs.

P.S. Today is International Mother Language Day, which promotes the preservation and protection of all languages through multilingualism and multiculturalism. It’s therefore highly appropriate that I write about my father’s mother tongue today – though also highly inappropriate that I’m taking absolutely no initiative to learn it.

checking back in with the fears

Just over a year ago, on the cusp of leaving for Senegal, I jotted down a list of my fears about picking up and moving abroad with no job and very little idea of what to expect. I would now like to revisit that list, because it’s a good signpost of how far I’ve traveled both mentally and physically: Continue reading

my one year Sene-versary

ile de ngor.jpg
One year ago today I arrived in Senegal. Just yesterday, I posted a love letter to my home for the past year, Dakar, so I won’t do that again today. Instead, I will post a most fitting love letter to myself.

I, after all, got me here.

Dear Ruth:

Now, I’ve had the time of my life. No, I never felt like this before. Yes, I swear, it’s the truth, and I owe it all to you.

I’ve been waiting for so long, now I’ve finally found someone to stand by me. We saw the writing on the wall as we felt this magical fantasy. Now with passion in our eyes, there’s no way we could disguise it secretly. So we take each other’s hand, ‘cause we seem to understand the urgency.

Just remember: you’re the one thing I can’t get enough of. So I’ll tell you something – this could be love, because I’ve had the time of my life. No, I never felt this way before. Yes I swear, it’s the truth, and I owe it all to you.

‘Cause I’ve had the time of my life, and I’ve searched though every open door, ’til I found the truth, and I owe it all to you.

XOXOXO,

me / you

P.S. We can build this dream together, standing strong forever, nothing’s gonna stop us now. And if this world runs out of lovers, we’ll still have each other. Nothing’s gonna stop us, nothing’s gonna stop us now.

A Valentine’s Day love letter to Dakar

One year ago today, I broke up with New York and began my journey into the arms of Dakar.

New York was a bad boyfriend that I stuck with so long only because I have attachment issues. I kept saying to myself, maybe if I do x, y, or z, NYC will finally return the love. It didn’t happen, because New York doesn’t love people; New York only loves itself. But because New York is also charismatic, and attractive, and exciting, and always offering interesting stories and whirlwind adventures right when you’re on the verge of saying, “Fuck it, I’m out,” (classic mixed signals), I ignored how unhappy my relationship with the city was. Until I couldn’t ignore it any longer, and I started flirting with leaving New York for Dakar.

Coming here was the best decision I ever made. I don’t have a love/hate relationship with Dakar the way I did with New York. That’s because Dakar doesn’t play hard to get. There are no velvet ropes or impossible rental markets or hours-long commutes through dark, crowded holes in the ground. And Dakar gets me. It gets that cities are made for connecting with people, not for throwing money around. It gets that people need to move at the same pace our ancestors did, even if our technology permits us to go much faster. (In Dakar, the technology does not actually permit that, and I’m thankful for it despite my grumblings.) And Dakar still has character. It isn’t being taken over by global capitalism and slowly turned into a cookie cutter version of every other metropolis.

But I don’t want to use Valentine’s Day to pen thinly veiled hate mail to my former flame. Instead – Dakar, let me count the ways that I love you: Continue reading

Yiddish wisdom about love

My mother’s grandmother spoke to her in Yiddish, and there were two expressions she used that my mother has in turn passed on to me:

Az will kommen der b’shert, es will sein ohne zwei worte.

[When the right one comes along, it will be without saying two words.]

Wenn der putz steht, der sechel legt.

[When the penis goes up, reason goes down.]

I’ve got overly romantic sensibilities, so I find the first saying ridiculously sweet even though I rationally know that subscribing to it is dangerous. If you’re waiting to be struck by lightning upon first viewing your b’shert, as it were, your prospects will be significantly reduced.

The latter turn of phrase makes me wish so much that I could have met my great-grandmother. It seems that she, like my mother, had a gift for saying highly inappropriate yet hilarious things to her progeny. I wonder what other awesome Yiddish wisdom (or Yiddish curses) she spouted that have since been lost to time.

Happy Valentine’s Day! My sincerest hope for you is that you spend today with the right one. And if s/he hasn’t come along yet, may you at the very least not be in the company of an unthinking dick.

[Painting by Marc Chagall, whose work is resplendent with both romance and Yiddishkeit.]

The Gambia

The last destination on my 4-country shoot in December was The Gambia. After some discussion about whether to postpone due to the political situation, we decided that it should be safe to go during the (albeit tense) lull between the time when outgoing President Jammeh reneged on his promise to accept the election results and the time when West African nations launched hard-core diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. Continue reading

Travel as ecstasy

In college I heard an urban legend that has stayed with me for almost two decades:

Supposedly there was a guy who had sex while high on Ecstasy, and it was so mind-blowing that it ruined regular sex for him. After just one time, his mind and body flipped a switch, and sober sex became so lackluster in comparison that he could no longer get it up without taking E.

That story, and its perhaps unintended warning about being too greedy with pleasure, popped back into my head recently when I thought about the prospect of moving back to the States. After a year of heightened experience while abroad, living in the land of my upbringing now seems so much… not like living.

Hyperbolic, yes, but also true to form. When I was four and a half, my dad’s job got transferred and my parents moved our family from the New Jersey suburbs to central London (and, to be fair, to the London suburbs soon after). It was the mid-80’s, there were punks and new wave rockers everywhere, and the sights and sounds of England were wondrous to a little kid.

A year and a half later, we returned to the States, and we eventually settled right back in to the same house we had lived in before the move. Eight years after that, teen angst hit me hard, America no longer cut it for me, and I became obsessed with my time in England. I hated my bland suburban existence and fantasized about moving back to London where everyone was more interesting, witty, good-looking and stylish. Granted, my anglophilia coincided with the dawn of Britpop, which made everyone want to be British. But it also had to do with my burgeoning sense that life was best lived outside of one’s home country.

We used to go to Israel every couple of years to visit my dad’s family. Since he had been in the Israeli army before moving to the United States, and since soldiers are considered re-call-up-able until a certain age, my father had to get written permission to leave the country each time our vacations ended. Before heading to the airport, we’d go to the army base, and while sitting in the car waiting for my dad to come back from whatever office he was in, my mother would wistfully say, “I hope they make us stay.” Then the kids would threaten to go back home alone. But secretly I always wished that we’d get stuck in this land of my cousins and grandparents, of very few seat belts or rules, of an exotic language and biblical-looking scenery, of complete foreignness mixed with assurances of belonging. Instead of going back to my boring school I’d get to continue being on vacation, indefinitely, in a strange and wonderful place.

I suppose I still have the naiveté of a child, because being abroad this year – even on days when it has sucked and been nothing but a hustle – has still felt like vacation. Everything is new and different and exciting, even when it’s sort of not. I suppose if I stayed away another year or two, it might lose its luster and go back to being just like regular life. But at this point in time, it feels like being on (really amazing) drugs, and I fear that it has ruined me for America.

[The photo is from the Mauritanian desert.]