a new French benchmark! (Frenchmark?)

espresso machine

People. Today I had a meeting… in French.

The first thing the man I was meeting with asked was, “Français? Anglais?” I chose the latter because though I’m seizing every opportunity to speak French, a business meeting is no place to practice. I then proceeded to lose all professional decorum when he offered me espresso from his Lavazza machine.* It was like Beatlemania applied to a coffeemaker.


So to be fair, there wasn’t much farther to fall. But I was alarmed when the man called over one of his staff, seemingly to introduce us, but actually to join us for the rest of the meeting – in French, because I had said that was fine when I thought we’d be doing five seconds’ worth of, “Je m’appelle Ruth. Enchantée. À bientôt.

For the next twenty minutes I had three parallel streams of thought running through my mind. One was, “Holy shit, I’m having a meeting in French and I can understand!!!!” One was, “Holy shit, I’m having a meeting in French, what if I can’t understand????” And then of course, one was the conversation itself.

Perhaps it’s due to this overcrowding that my brain seems to skip over some fundamental processing component when working in French. I’ve noticed that I’ll follow along with a conversation, respond accordingly, and conclude with some mutually agreed upon forward-facing plan, but afterwards I’ll find myself unable to recap what was said in anything more than vague general terms. The specifics don’t seem to get banked, even in my short-term memory.

Anticipating that I might have this problem today, I scribbled down notes in English immediately following the meeting. It felt a little like I was cheating the (language acquisition) system, but in this case I couldn’t afford to get anything wrong by writing in French. As it is, I’m terrified that when I email them to follow up they’re going to be like, “Why is she going on and on about X when we asked her to talk about Y?”

That’s not the point. The point is: today I reached a new personal level of awesomeness because I had a business meeting in French. I just gave myself a literal pat on the back, because such things are important.

*It takes capsules just like Nespresso but it is as delicious and potent as the real thing.

Orchestra Baobab heart heart heart

I said it last week and I’ll say it again: Afro-Latin music is the best stuff on earth.

After an incredible show, Saturday night ended with me sitting in the lead singer Rudy’s car waiting for the ride home he promised me. (I made that sound way more titillating than it actually was because I can’t help myself.) He was about to get in the driver’s seat but then disappeared, apparently to distribute ngalax around the neighorhood. When he showed up again twenty-five minutes later, he said he had to go to a meeting. It was 3:30 in the morning. I’m so accustomed to these lost in translation moments by now that I just laughed, considered it a fun non-adventure, and took a taxi home.

This situation, by the way, was not of my own making. One of the people with whom I went to the show was a guy named Doyen who works at the language center where I’m taking classes. He used to be a radio DJ and is good friends with the band. Rudy offered me a ride because he offered Doyen a ride.

Alas, it was not meant to be. But it is pretty remarkable how small a world it is here and how up close and personal you can get to the amazingly talented musicians in Dakar. Next time I see Rudy I am going to ask him for advice on taking drum lessons here. Because why not.

Joyeuses Pâques

millet_and_raisins_and_nutmeg.jpgWhile 95% of Senegalese are Muslim, my host family is Catholic. For Easter, they went all out making a traditional treat called ngalax.

On Friday morning I came downstairs to find this woman sifting vats of baobab fruit into a fine powder. baobab_for_ngalaxOn Friday night I was pressed into service opening packet after packet of vanilla sugar and dumping it into a bucket. (Why they do not sell non-packeted vanilla sugar, I could not get an explanation.)

On Saturday morning the kitchen and courtyard downstairs were overflowing with women I had never seen before, all playing their special parts in the assembly line of ngalax mass-production.

Here are some of the ingredients waiting to be incorporated: millet, raisins and nutmeg (which was freshly grated along with orange rind).millet_and_raisinsThey lightly toasted the millet. miles_of_milletAnd then they added it to these vats of baobab powder mixed with the Senegalese version of peanut butter and the other fixings. (That’s my host mom below.)baobab_fruit_bitesThe resulting concoction looked highly unappetizing but tasted highly delicious. (Although I have no idea how my host sister’s boyfriend ate four bowlfuls in a row – after one both my stomach and mind were in a stupor.) ngalaxThey made 60 buckets of this stuff (!!!) and, as is the tradition, gave it out all over town in visits to family, friends, and neighbors throughout the day and into the night.

vat_of_ngalax.jpgThen they all went to midnight mass, which I was originally interested in checking out until I heard that Orchestra Baobab was playing a show at Just4U. Priorities!

Kaolack et Latmingué redux


Two-day filming trip, back to the city and the 4,000-person town where I spent some time two weeks ago. Non-filmic highlights:


First shared meal, in Kaolack. Everyone creates little de facto plate borders for themselves out of the food itself, so it’s not really as shared (read: germ-swappy) as you would think.


I tasted baobab fruit fresh from the tree (the pod-thing it comes in is the top picture). It had the melt-in-your-mouth, chalky texture of astronaut ice cream and was sweet and tart at the same time.


Also, baby goats.


I just realized that most of what strikes me as notable and shareable during my travels is food-related. It is such a huge part of culture, no?

On that note, if the Internet cooperates, tomorrow I’ll post pictures of the delicious Senegalese Easter concoction I tried yesterday after it was mass-produced in my house (during a serious two days-long all-hands-on-deck operation).


post-weekend update


I tried to post all my weekend links on Friday, then on Saturday, then on Sunday, but Senegal’s circa-1996 Internet had other plans. (This place has given me such a sharpened appreciation for the impact of the digital divide.) Oh well, at least now I can share a photo from yesterday’s referendum (my neighborhood polling station, above) and a video from the Cheikh Lo show at Just4U on Friday night:

Three thoughts:

  1. Latin-West African fusion has produced the most amazing sounds on the planet.
  2. Cheikh Lo and the thousands of other stately gentlemen walking around this city put America’s hipsters to shame. The combination of tunic, leather slippers, beanie, aviators, and ornate silver jewelry is just about the coolest thing I have ever seen. I don’t know why the Sartorialist hasn’t gotten around to visiting this place.
  3. I really do want to leave everything behind and learn how to play that over-the-shoulder/under-the-armpit drum.

The weekend is now over but here are some weekday reads. They are all from the New York Times, because now that I’ve traveled to a far reach of the planet, I can no longer travel to a far reach of the Internet.


Bilinguals have superior social skills. 

How to find a local guide when traveling solo.

Six of the ten least happy countries in the world are ones I am really hoping to travel to this year. :S

There are only two cruises I want to take: this one and the one that tours Alaskan glaciers with the elderly.

Americans: get yourselves to Cuba, stat. Look at this if you need convincing.

How to travel with an eye to settling down.

Have a good week! As for me, I’ll be returning to Kaolack tomorrow to shoot some pick-ups in the 100 degree heat, yippie!


touring Senegal

baobabsSo I got back from my trip Saturday night and it felt a bit like a homecoming, which was nice. But then again it also felt like exactly the opposite, which is part of what prompted the waterworks.

I am getting ahead of myself. The trip: I was hired by a non-profit that funds development work in Senegal (and other countries) to make videos about some of their projects. Since I traveled as part of a donor visit whose itinerary contained not only site visits but also lots of tourist stops, I got to enjoy plenty of off-the-clock sightseeing during the week we spent on the road. I also got to enjoy the company of the donors, who were a really fun and interesting group.


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(get over the) hump day inspiration: Stevie Nicks edition

Stevie Nicks

Yesterday was my one-month anniversary (monniversary? mensiversary?) in Dakar, and I spent most of the day crying. But that was before I realized what day it was. At about 6pm it dawned on me that I arrived on February 15 and it was now March 15, so I took a moment to be proud of myself before returning to weepiness.

This morning I was scrolling through Instagram (where I finally started posting photos) and saw this quote on @CarolineCala‘s feed. It was exactly what I needed.

I’m by turns discouraged, lonely, bored, frustrated, overwhelmed, disconnected, hungry, nauseous, and unsure of myself here, not to mention convinced that my hair – which I am hoping to grow out as quickly as possible and which I am thus loath to trim into shape – makes me look like a socially untouchable muppet. But I’m not leaving til I finish what I started.

(PS It’s not nearly as bad as that sounds. I am in a slump right now but there have also been many moments of pure joy, confidence, excitement, chattiness, connection, and happy gorging.)

(PPS Will share photos from my trip when I figure out how to connect an Android to a Mac to upload them.)