a very happy blogiversary

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Three years ago today, at home in Brooklyn, I wrote my first post for this blog, which I had conceived as an exercise in keeping my eyes on the prize. What prize? My big new dream was to spend two years saving up money while practicing my high school French and re-learning elementary Spanish, and then to move to Senegal followed by Argentina a year later. It was a ridiculously ambitious dream… but I did it all. Well, not Argentina. Not yet, anyway. Paris somehow got thrown into the mix first, the result of a post-Brexit fear that my EU citizenship might not be around to open Europe’s doors for me much longer.

The point is that I actively changed my life from one that was boring me and leaving me unfulfilled to the one I had dreamed about having since I was a kid. This blog has borne witness to all of that, and so I deeply appreciate this blog. Likewise, I deeply appreciate everyone who has followed along with my journey, whether dropping in once or reading every post.

Who knows what this year will bring. Maybe I’ll run out of steam (read: money) and go back to New York. Maybe I’ll return to Dakar. Maybe I’ll move on to Barcelona or Buenos Aires or somewhere else entirely. Maybe I’ll fall in love with Paris (I’m really, really trying) and stay. It’s all very, beautifully unclear. (And also very scary, let’s be honest.)

Whatever happens, I will write about it here.

[P.S. The photo has nothing to do with this blog post, but I took it last night when I was out in what apparently has become a hopping neighborhood of Paris. It amuses me. These poor residents just want to get some peace and quiet, but little do they realize that draping an indignant sign out your window (it says: silence, [we have] the right to sleep) is an invitation for rowdy revelers to yell even louder. At least it is in America. Maybe French young people have more respect.]

 

 

and another thing…

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As I said yesterday, I’ve now been to Paris four times. The first time was in June or July almost 23 years ago. The second time was in March of the year 2000. The third was in January, two winters ago. And finally, I’m here again in April. Thus, three out of four seasons are quite well represented.

And yet… can anyone tell me why the temperature has been pretty much exactly the same every time I’ve visited? Is it ever not 53 degrees in Paris? (Fahrenheit, people.)

And why, WHY, does it always feel more like 33? This morning I actually stood in front of an outdoor chicken rotisserie broiler to warm up.

Despite my lack of pure unadulterated love for Paris, I’ve been finding it highly enjoyable to be here under my current circumstances (unemployed yet with a certain sense of possibility). I keep breaking into the widest grins while walking down the wide boulevards and happening upon things like the Benoit Hamon rally at place de la République last night. But… this weather is really cramping my style. It takes me like an hour to will myself out of bed in the morning, as though it’s mid-January. I didn’t bring my winter coat with me, and there’s only so many layers I can put on in a day without looking like a bag lady.

So I’m cangry. There’s hangry for hunger-induced anger and now I’m officially coining cangry for cold-induced anger. Oh wait, it already exists.  I bet whoever beat me to it is Parisian.

[Photo of Paris from the air, oh whoops, my mistake, it’s actually the Arctic tundra: Jack French.]

Paris as Bradley Cooper

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Yesterday as I was strolling the stunning streets of Paris, I began again to wonder why I have such a chip on my shoulder about this lovely city. None of my explanations were plausible, until I decided to apply my “city as boyfriend” analogy, and then all of a sudden it made sense. My relationship to Paris is exactly like my relationship with Bradley Cooper.

Which is not to claim that Bradley Cooper is my boyfriend. He is not, nor will he ever be. That’s the point.

Everybody loves Bradley Cooper. They think he is the most beautiful, sexy man on the planet. In his real-life presence, they become giddy and take beaming selfies. There are some who would even pay extravagent amounts of money to spend the night with him.

Me, not a chance. I acknowledge that Bradley Cooper has exceptionally beautiful eyes, but that’s where it ends. He seems like a standard-issue faux-hunk who has cultivated nothing soulful below the surface. The chemistry is just not there. And what’s more, he seems to have an air about him of the arrogant A-lister who thinks only the hottest babes are worthy of him. So, if I ever crossed his path, I’d make a point of turning on my heel and walking the other way before he could take the non-time to look right through me.

And that’s Paris and me in a nutshell. The three times I’ve been here before, I could not love the city because I was sure the city would not find me worthy of loving back. I thought I didn’t look good enough, dress well enough, or speak French elegantly enough.

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I suppose I could have fallen for Paris anyway, given my romantic predisposition to run after those who don’t give me the time of day. But, like Bradley Cooper, I was never that attracted to Paris to begin with. While I recognize that the city is objectively gorgeous, it does not move me in the way that, say, Barcelona with its wonder-inducing Gaudís does. All this week, I’ve been walking past jaw-dropping buildings, and while they do fill me with delight, I also feel a sense of disconnection and resentment of their superfluous, easy beauty. 

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They remind me of Victoria’s Secret models. The kind favored by Bradley Cooper, not so incidentally. Is there anything that’s strikingly peculiar or unconventionally dazzling about this place? Anything that is lovable and wonderful rather than simply stunning? Until I arrived last week, I found that prospect doubtful.

Now that I’m here, I realize that’s ridiculous. There must be. I am trying hard to withhold judgement and to earnestly search it out. I realize it’s equally ridiculous to think that an entire city is judging me. No one cares. Parisians are just going about their business, and there is no velvet rope keeping me from joining them.

That said, I should also withhold judgment of Bradley Cooper. I do not know him nor have any basis to tell what he is really like. For all I know, he could be an unselfconsciously offbeat sweetheart. Perhaps he loves playing gin rummy with his grandma. Perhaps he has three pet hamsters named after Hollywood royalty. Perhaps he still writes to his Kenyan pen-pal from the fifth grade. Doubtful, but possible.

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[Top photo of Bradley Cooper in Paris: Just Jared; Bottom photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Europe]

dropping in

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It’s been awhile. I’m writing this from Paris, after a whirlwind tour of southern New Jersey, New York, and Los Angeles, where I caught up with family and friends and generally ran around like a crazy person doing an average of twelve things each day compared to the one or two things that was my norm in Dakar. Hence, no time for blog posts.

I actually did write one on my phone, but I never found a moment to upload it and now it’s obsolete. Ah well.

So anyway, I got to Paris on Tuesday, which makes today my one week anniversary. Not that I’m counting the days or anything… Rather, I’m frittering them away like a retiree who doesn’t realize that she’s about to run out of money very, very soon. Or, like a retiree who does realize this and yet somehow feels very emotionally insulated from that knowledge. I don’t know what’s going on with me and my usual stress response, but I’m living the good life here in France while doing the bare minimum to find work, even though I estimate I have about three months left to bleed money before my good life will come to an end and I’ll be on the next flight to wherever someone will give me a job.

But for now, here are some random tidbits about my time in Paris thus far:

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For a month, I have an AirBnB rental in a heavily West African neighborhood called Barbès. I did this by design, figuring it would help me pretend that I hadn’t completely left a place I didn’t really want to leave. What I didn’t realize when I booked the apartment was how close Barbès is to everywhere else. Paris is a much smaller city than I thought. A few days ago I walked from my house, which is fairly close to the ring road that encircles the central city, all the way to the Seine in the middle of the city, in about 40 minutes.

The tiny apartment has two windows, one towards the front of the house and one towards the back. The front one – my bedroom window – has a view of a blooming lilac tree and an apartment building painted dark magenta across the road. It’s quite picturesque. But the view out the back window – the one in the image at the top of this post – steals the show. The frame is filled by Sacré-Cœur in such a way that it looks like a backdrop for a set. At night they light up the church, and I turn off the lights in my kitchen and just stare out the window grinning.

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My plan had been to spend every other day of my one-month Paris trial, as I’m thinking of it, strolling aimlessly around a different arrondissement to get to know the city better. (And I was supposed to spend every other day at home in front of my computer, working hard to find a job. I may or may not have stuck to that plan.) I found a box of 50 index-sized cards in the rental, each one with a different short tour of a Paris neighborhood, and I decided to use those to guide my walks instead. They are amazing because you don’t look like a tourist holding a map or a guide book when you walk around with one of the cards, and the landmarks include some fairly random yet intriguing places, like candy stores from the 1700s.

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As expected, I am continuously tempted by the million and one ways to dispense with my money here. When I visited the Galeries Lafayette as part of one of the walking tours, it felt dangerous to linger too long, because everything looked perfect and amazing and I feared getting sucked in to a buying frenzy. IMG_7997.jpg

(When I took a picture of the famous cupola I noticed that with only slight modification, the bunting echoed my nostalgic thoughts: Trop cher. Fly me to DKR forever.) And yet, I can’t even blame the French for their overconsumption of luxuries the way I do Americans. Haute couture and gastronomy are part of French cultural heritage (even UNESCO says so.); how can you begrudge them their Chanel and their artisanal cheese?

On that note… I did some grocery shopping so that I wouldn’t have to keep spending money eating out. I stopped in to a charcuterie shop and picked up a few slices of ham and a wedge of emmental, which I figured would last me a few breakfasts. When the cashier rang it up as 19 Euros, I gasped, “Jesus Christ,” which is appropriate given that my own god would have been like, “That’s what you get for eating pork.”

Also what I get for eating pork (and six kinds of cheese, and ice cream, and Sancerre, and steak with blue cheese sauce…): I became progressively more and more sick to my stomach for the first four or five days I was here. The theory I came up with in Senegal holds water: my stomach does a million times better in places where other people’s do much worse, because my stomach does not like the good life the way my heart and taste buds do. (I’m ignoring my stomach and trying to push through.)

To conclude: I will soon be both broke and physically broken, but in the meantime I’m quite happy. This is a really nice life to lead, however long it lasts.

P.S. The most random of the random tidbits: I find young trendy French people’s relationship to the English language hilarious. Today I passed a hipster-bearded guy wearing a cap that said MILF on it, and I really wanted to ask him if he knew what it meant. Instead I laughed out loud while checking him out and he caught me in the act. I don’t know, maybe he does know exactly what it means and is just taking the concept of wearing things ironically to a rather brilliant level.

my favorite pictures from Dakar

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Because I’m in NYC feeling reverse homesickness, if you will, here are the pix that I love the most from my time in Dakar.

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The architecture I love combined with the car rapides that I love = a feast for the eyes.IMG_7236 copy

On Tamkharit (or Tamxarit), a week after the Islamic new year, Muslim friends and relatives of the family I lived with brought around huge bowls of a spiced millet couscous and a sweet stew called thiere. The picture above represents perhaps half of the generosity shown to the Lo family by their Dakarois neighbors. On every holiday, I was touched by how many people stopped by to visit and drop off food. IMG_7436 copy

And on my own holiday – Thanksgiving – I made an American feast for the family. It was a really fun night.

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I went with Mamie and Tantie Lo to a fabric market to pick out material for a dress Mamie needed made before a wedding. She waded deep into the piles upon piles of fabric and I love the expression on her face as she listened to Tantie advising her from the street.IMG_7119 copy

And I love this one of Tantie and Mamie and me. We were getting “sundowners,” as they call sunset drinks in Dakar (I could never figure out if this was a British or French expression), at a hotel bar overlooking the ocean.

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One morning I came downstairs to catch everyone in the household in the same exact pose. I found it fairly adorable.

I loved living with the Lo’s. They were endlessly warm and welcoming, and through them I learned what daily life is really like in Dakar. (I also got incredible French practice.)

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Seeing Youssou N’Dour from front row seats on the eve of Senegalese Independence Day was hands down my best night in Dakar.

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One day many months into my stay in Dakar, I happened upon this baguette truck in my neighborhood. From then on I saw it everywhere, and I swooned every time. IMG_20170211_233743081 copy 2One of my last nights out was for a women’s association event hosted by the matriarch of the Lo family. A Tuareg man from Timbuktu, Mali was at the table next to mine, and until the “Parade of Nations” at like 2 in the morning, I didn’t realize that he was carrying a sword as part of his traditional dress for that parade. I thought he must trot it out for every special occasion, and I was in awe. Just goes to show: never draw conclusions based on observations of cultures that are unfamiliar to you.IMG_20170214_161939270 copy 2

My last month in Dakar, I raced my way through every spot left on my “to see” list. Yoff beach was one of those places, and once I saw it I regretted not having come earlier so that I could revisit. It is miles of beachfront, at one end of which is where many of Dakar’s fishers dock their boats. The line-up of brightly painted pirogues, the wandering sheep, the horse-drawn carts, and the fishermen and fish market saleswomen running to and fro creates a very picturesque tableau.

And now, I turn tearfully back to the reality of New York in the supposed Spring…

12 months, 12 countries

I came to Senegal hoping I’d be lucky enough to see a bit of this country and a few others nearby. Things worked out beyond my wildest dreams, and I ended up visiting 12 new countries in 12 months, a personal record. Half the trips were for work, half for vacation, but all of them were a pleasure to see. (Though they were definitely not pleasurable at every moment, to say the least.)

I’ll share my favorite pictures from Dakar later, but first, here in one place are my travelogues from all the countries I visited from last February to this January.

Senegal: the western and northern parts, and a central / southern part

Portugal

Morocco: Marrakech and Casablanca

Liberia

Ethiopia

Tanzania: safari on the mainland and Zanzibar

South Africa: Cape Town and Johannesburg

Benin

Mauritania

Burkina Faso

The Gambia

Cape Verde: Cidade Velho, Praia, and Mindelo, and the island of Santo Antão

And with that, I’m off to the airport, America-bound…

handmade in Senegal

Just in case my baggage gets lost en route to New York, here are the clothes I had made from the fabric I bought in Senegal, Benin and Ethiopia.

The only thing I didn’t end up liking is the blue, orange, and yellow shirt (top row, center). It was supposed to be a fairly androgynous camp shirt just like this zebra one.

But it turned out looking more like a woman’s leisure suit jacket from the 70s. I gave it to Mamie and somehow it looks awesome on her.

The zebra shirt, by the way, is the only thing I ordered from a different tailor than Adama Paris. I walked by a children’s clothing shop, Bapribap, in my neighborhood one day and saw the cutest zebra shirt for little boys, along with an adorable wax-print romper for little girls. I went in and asked if they could make them in adult sizes, and indeed they could. So I ordered one zebra shirt for me and one for my 2 year-old nephew. 🙂 A few weeks ago I went back to the shop and bought something like nine other outfits for my nieces and my friends’ babies. They are all going to look so cute, just the thought of it makes me giddy. Plus I was really happy to support the business of someone I became friends with over the course of my year here. Annica is awesome, and she happens to be married to the reporter I worked with a few months ago (who I met separately, because like I said, it’s a small ex-patriot world).

All in all, not a bad haul, huh?

:(

Today is my last full day in Senegal. Not to beat this subject to death but I’m really really really really sad.

I’m spending today going around to all my regular places saying my goodbyes, and tonight I’m having a gathering of “family” and friends on my terrace. You are invited, sort of! Dakar just got Google Street View, so you can join me in spirit by virtually visiting where I lived for one incredible year.

Start on my street corner, explore my neighborhood, venture up to Almadies and down to Plateau… Then maybe you’ll get a teeny tiny idea of why I love this city so much. But I somehow doubt it. You just have to be here.

P.S. The weather report for New York is giving me an anxiety attack.

(get over the) hump day inspiration: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf edition

Today’s quote comes directly from The New York Times’ International Women’s Day-themed Daily Briefing. And it couldn’t be more appropriate to where I’m at right now.

Also, the briefing noted that Senegal ranks in the top ten countries with the most female representation in Parliament. I had no idea. Go, Senegal!

anticipatory nostalgia

As I’ve mentioned before, my family moved from the suburbs of New Jersey to the London area when I was a kid. I spent a year and a half living an everyday little girl’s life while also soaking up mid-80s British pop culture in all of its splendor. I remember so much of my time in England, 32 years later. The layout of our various apartments and later our house; several traumatizing incidents from kindergarten and first grade; interactions with my brother and sister; key moments in the love story and breakup of my school-bus boyfriend; every friend’s birthday party; my toys; the walks we used to take; the food we used to eat; the dairy delivery we used to get. But the memories that hit me the hardest, on a visceral level that gives me chills, are almost entirely musical.

They are not even memories per se. When I hear a song that I first listened to in England, I usually don’t remember a particular moment associated with it. Instead, I am transported back to a general time and place, and I re-experience the feelings I had while listening to the song at the age of 5 and 6. That’s powerful emotional stuff.

These songs in particular really get me:

a-ha – Take On Me

Do They Know It’s Christmas? from Band Aid

Tears for Fears – Everybody Wants to Rule the World, as I’ve noted.

The Bangles – Manic Monday

The theme to “Chariots of Fire.” I never saw the film but my music teacher would play the theme song for us on the piano at the end of every class, after my schoolmates would beg him to.

And perhaps more than any of the others: the theme song to “EastEnders,” a long-running British soap that first aired soon after my family arrived in London.

My mom loved it, and it seemed to be on all the time. I heard that song and saw the opening titles with the satellite photo of the Thames zooming out to reveal East London so much that it came to represent all of England for me. To this day, any time I hear the music, my heart clenches with nostalgia.

So, that’s how I know that the Senegal song that will stop me in my tracks and bring tears to my eyes years from now is none other than the theme song to “Wiri Wiri,” Senegal’s favorite soap. Like “EastEnders,” “Wiri Wiri” always seems to be on, and I have heard the opening and closing music countless times. It is quite catchy and stirring in much the same way that the “Eastenders” theme is.

Here’s the whole song, which is by none other than Youssou N’Dour. He seems to be behind everything beloved in this country.

I can list a bunch of other songs – hit singles from Youssou and other top Senegalese artists – that I know will similarly make me emotional. But I am guessing “Wiri Wiri” will be the one to effortlessly transport my heart to a time and a place that will forever stand out from other times and places, and that I will wish I could return to just once more.

[P.S. The actors’ expressions on “Wiri Wiri” are so amazing that I enjoy watching it even without knowing what anyone is saying. I like guessing the storyline and getting Mamie or Tantie to tell me how close I’ve come. Try it – it’s quite entertaining.]

[P.P.S. Remember how yesterday I said that even annoying things are making me preemptively homesick for Senegal? Well, this morning I peed in a squat toilet that had gone un-emptied for too long. As mosquitos swarmed and bit me everywhere that I couldn’t swat fast enough, my pee – and everyone else’s – splashed back from the nearly overflowing hole in the ground onto my exposed ankles. It was a good reminder that there are some things no amount of sentimentality could make me miss.]