South Africa part 2: Johannesburg

In Johannesburg I stayed with an acquaintance of an acquaintance. About two years ago I met up with someone I had briefly worked with on a couple of projects, and I mentioned that I was planning to move to Senegal. He put me in touch with an Irish woman (whom he had never met but with whom he had somehow conversed in an online artists community, maybe?), who also worked with non-profits, had moved to South Africa a few years before, and was perhaps a kindred spirit who might advise me on my journey. I Skyped with her from New York, she was wonderfully supportive and helpful, and before we hung up she invited me to stay with her and her partner in Johannesburg if I ever made it that way. At the time I joked, “Sure, why not travel from one end of Africa to the other? See you in a few months!” But in the end, that’s exactly what happened. Continue reading

South Africa part 1: Cape Town

I’m about to set off for four new places, and I’ve still got a bunch of catching up to do with posts about the places I’ve already been to…

So here’s a rundown of the Cape Town portion of my Ethiopia / Tanzania / South Africa tour, and I’ll attempt to follow this with Johannesburg and possibly Benin before I leave town tomorrow evening: Continue reading

what I was up to in Benin and central(ish) Senegal

I just noticed that the videos I made in Benin have been published, and I realized I never shared the ones I made in Senegal, so here they are.

The 3-minute English version of the Benin video:

And the 5-minute French version, which makes me want to jump up and down shouting, “I did it all by myself!” (Even though I didn’t. I got help revising the subtitles, which I butchered on the first attempt.)

And below are the Senegal videos, Forou Serer first and Latmingué second. Mamie is the narrator of both! (She thinks I have made her a star because the videos played in New York. 🙂 )


Thanksgiving in Dakar

A belated happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate! Last week was stressful, between planning against the clock for a 4-country shoot that begins on the 1st of December, and trying to pull off an American Thanksgiving in Dakar at the same time. I am affectionately calling last Thursday’s festivities the toughest producing job of my life. But, in the midst of the madness, I did take the time to count my blessings and to acknowledge all that I’m grateful for. Which is so, so, so much this year.

Including the Thanksgiving meal itself. Until the moment everything was on the table, I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. We didn’t even order a turkey until the day before. The price for a 13 pound bird? Almost $60. Turkeys are rare and thus expensive here. Having never cooked one before, having found no pan big enough to hold it, and having realized too late that I had neither a grill to lift the turkey off the pan (apparently very crucial) nor sufficient time to marinade the bird (also important), the possibility of a very expensive turkey fail weighed on me as I went downtown to pick it up from the Lebanese poultry shop at 9am on Thanksgiving morning.

But here is what happened. As soon as I got back to the house, Madame Lo – who had never seen a turkey before in her life – went to work washing and gutting the thing I was too grossed out to touch, patting it dry with a towel, rubbing it down with a marinade we left on for an hour, and then wiping it away and replacing it with so much smeared-on butter that it gave new meaning to Butterball. She also stuffed some of the herb mixture between chunks of the flesh, Senegalese-style, and when it was time to close up the bird after jamming the (American Food Store-bought) stuffing in, she shoved her brochette skewers into the bird, snapped off the wooden handles and bent the metal into staples like the Incredible Hulk, and hand-stitched any remaining holes together with cooking thread. It looked like Frankenstein but the job was done, and after plopping the turkey onto a found-at-the-very-last-minute tinfoil pan (which we filled with quartered onions and a quarter-inch of apple cider that the Internet told me was a suitable replacement for a grill), it was ready for the oven…

…which is on the second floor. Under the weigh of its contents, the pan buckled and almost broke on the way up the stairs. Then there was the problem of the temperature. I knew the turkey was supposed to cook at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 3 hours. I had converted that to Celsius, only to recall that the Lo’s oven isn’t marked with temperatures but with the meaningless numbers 1 through 8. So I had to check on that thing – with the only meat thermometer I could find, an unreliable non-digital version – every five minutes for the last three hours of cooking. When it finally came out of the oven I had absolutely no idea if it was undercooked, overcooked, cooked on top but not bottom, or what.

The Lo’s have two women who come to do the cooking and cleaning on weekdays, and Madame Lo wrangled them to help me prepare the other dishes. I would have been sunk without them, though the three of us made a rather ridiculous group: they were completely unfamiliar with everything I wanted to make and the ways I wanted to make it, and I sort of was, too. I’ve been making some of these dishes for years, but in Dakar I had to come up with creative ingredient substitutions and use completely different cooking tools. It’s somewhat shocking to me that we made it work.

One dish that actually turned out better the Senegalese way was the sweet potatoes, which we cooked on the grill that they usually use for fish.

And a French baguette beats Wonder bread any day (though I know this from past and not current, i.e. gluten-free, experience.)

Speaking of which, the pumpkin and apple toffee gluten-free tarts that I ordered from a German baker who has a counter at the American Food Store were better than anything I could have whipped up. And it meant that we had an American, Senegalese, Lebanese, French, and German Thanksgiving. Exactly as it should be.

I wasn’t sure how the Lo’s would feel about the meal. I’ve cooked for them a few times before and I’m never sure if they are being polite or truthful when they compliment the food (except for Mamie, who is without fail so effusive that I know she can’t be faking it). But this time they all went as nuts as Mamie usually does. They were in especial rapture over the (miraculous) perfectly cooked turkey, the pumpkin pie, and the green bean casserole, all of which they had never tasted before. Which meant that Mamie had to take it to a whole new level. She took off work early the next day to come home for the leftovers lunch.

Now Madame Lo is talking about making turkey for Christmas instead of their usual mutton. And I’m thinking of surprising them with another pumpkin pie that day. It’s amazing how much joy sharing food between cultures brings.

[P.S. In the first photo, from left to right is Monsieur Lo and Madame Lo (I really call them that, which I find both hilarious and heartwarming), George (a friend of Tantie’s), Tantie aka Armande, and Mamie aka Cecile. Felix is the oldest son and he no longer lives at home, Cecile is in her early 30s, Andre is in his mid-20s (and not pictured because he was working late), and Tantie, at 22, is the baby of the family. This is how I ended up living with them.]

my French bookshelf

There are four areas of language learning: listening, speaking, writing and reading. Regarding that last one, I discovered a couple of years ago that the best way for me to actually enjoy reading in French is to skip the difficult classics and turn instead to a genre I usually don’t particularly care for: “chick lit.” The same qualities I find exasperating and/or boring in my native language – formulaic plots, outdated tropes, low reading levels, and a focus on stereotypically “girly” subjects like beauty, shopping and dating – I find refreshingly accessible in French. (I know there are many exceptions to my generalizations. I thought “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” for example, was hilarious, clever and original – not a throwaway in the least.)

I’ve never read Sophia Kinsella in her/my native English, but I breezed through the French version of “Cocktail Club,” about a trio of dubiously fabulous London besties whose friendship is nearly derailed by a crazy revenge-seeking childhood acquaintance of one of them. I’m guessing I could not have lasted more than four pages of it in English but in French I found it positively delightful,… entirely because I understood it all. Also, it was light and fluffy and easy enough to read before bed instead of the English-language books I usually depend on but now can’t because a. I feel it detracts from my French efforts, and b. I finished all my English-language books and haven’t found anything interesting-looking in Dakar bookstores’ tiny English-language sections. (Don’t talk to me about Kindle. Not going there.)

I’ve now established a routine of reading a chapter from one of my three current chick lit books every night, armed with a pen to underline all the words I don’t recognize, so that I can add them to my French vocab list later. (My books look like that scene in “Say Anything” when Lloyd Dobler flips through Diane Court’s dictionary and sees a sea of X’s that mark words she’s looked up.)

But during the day, I get to business. I’m slowly (very, very slowly) reading “Vol de Nuit,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of my favorite book, “The Little Prince”), with a slightly different process than my nighttime one. First, I read a chapter straight through. Then I re-read it while simultaneously looking up words I don’t know. Then I add those words to my vocab list, or rather, I add the ones that are not so obscure or esoteric (it’s a book about 1940s postal aviation) as to be more trouble than the brain space they are worth.

Once I get through that one I’ll move on to the Senegalese classics that have been recommended to me and that I bought months ago:

“So Long a Letter” by Mariama Bâ is part of the African feminist cannon. When her estranged husband dies, a woman practices the traditional mourning customs alongside his second, younger wife. (Polygamy is legal and common in Senegal, which is about 95% Muslim.)

“The Belly of the Atlantic,” meanwhile, is a contemporary novel about two siblings, one of whom has emigrated to France and one of whom remains in Senegal.

I’ve also been dipping in and out of a collection of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s poetry. Senghor was Senegal’s first president following independence, and he was also an accomplished poet and one of the founders of the Négritude movement in Francophone writing. (Aside from Václav Havel, I don’t know of any other president-poets – do you? I think that electing a poet says beautiful things about your country, though I’m biased since I’m half-Czech.) What I’m realizing about poetry as I read it in a foreign language, is that the cadence of the words is as important as their meaning. I am totally and completely adrift when reading these poems – I am lucky if I even get the general gist – but they are nevertheless so lovely to read because of the sound and flow of the words. Which I guess is all to say: there’s poetry in poetry.

And God knows I need poetry these days.

It’s going to be a long week. Hang in there!

I didn’t have the energy to do much posting last week, though I had some links I wanted to share. So I’ll kick off this week with them instead:
I adore The New York Times’ Modern Love column. Last week’s was language-related. (And this week’s was heart-breakingly beautiful.)
You know you’re living in a sad world when this is the word of the year.
The Cockroach Hall of Fame Museum in Plano, TX is notably absent from this otherwise super list of unique and wonderful museums
This explains why I have so much trouble with English language programs overdubbed into French, and why in-person conversations are always easier for me than telephone calls.
I found this article helpful: things to keep in mind when you’re frustrated with your language learning.
Have a good week!
[PS the photo is from near my house in Dakar. There is a toy vendor who sometimes hangs dolls and action figures from trees in rather macabre fashion. It always makes me think of that motivational poster of the cat in every elementary school classroom in the 80s. This is the more cynical version, updated for adulthood / the horrors of 2016.]

mes rêves

I’ve finally found a reason to be thankful for sleeping lightly. This past Saturday, after spending much more time than usual with Mamie and Tantie (we hit up the holiday market during the day and went dancing at night), I dropped into bed exhausted – both from staying out late and from speaking so much non-stop French. 

You know when you’re in that liminal state between wakefulness and sleep and you catch yourself thinking nonsense thoughts? I was doing that in French, which made whatever I was thinking seem that much more bizarre (and awesome). I quickly dropped off to sleep and started dreaming. A guy, maybe a friend?, was distraught because he had found out his girlfriend was rumored to have once been an escort or porn star or something. I responded with a lecture about how even if that were the case, it wouldn’t change who she was, and he should think twice about reacting harshly. (My dream self is not necessarily representative of my real-life self, I’d like to note.) 

It was around this point that my dream turned lucid, and my consciousness interjected, “Wait a minute… I’m dreaming in French!! This entire speech I’m making is in French! And check out these crazy complicated conjugations I’m doing!” But then my lucid self questioned whether I was actually dreaming in French or just dream-speaking in French, i.e. putting nonsense words together like I had been doing right before falling asleep. So my conscious self went word for word over whatever I said to the guy next and confirmed that yes, I was in fact dreaming in (somewhat) properly formed, logical French. This in turn inspired my dream self to sermonize further just to hear herself speak.  

And then my full bladder unceremoniously woke me up, allowing me to recall that I had been dreaming, to remember a few words and phrases of what I had said, and to confirm in real life that I had crossed over the dreaming-in-French threshold. I have never peed so happily in my life.

Why? Because many, many people have told me that they knew they were becoming fluent in their foreign language when they started dreaming in it. While French has shown up in my dreams here and there, it has always been just a few words or phrases, and I was always too deeply asleep to tell whether it was true French or babble. Lately, I’ve been feeling that my progress in French is crawling along and that I’ll be dead before I’ll be proficient. But now I have a small glimpse of hope. 

P.S. Have you ever had lucid dreams? It is so much fun. I used to be an expert at it when I suffered from insomnia in my 20’s and was always on the edge of rather than fully asleep. Not only would I be aware that I was dreaming, but I could also sometimes control the dream like a self-designed virtual reality game. These days, my better sleep comes at the expense of lucid dreaming… though some people think you can train yourself to do it.

When bad French happens to good people

I’ve mentioned some of my French faux pas before. Those were the tip of the iceberg. Here are just a few of the blunders I’ve recently made:

– Everyone in Senegal had to register their phones with their service providers this month. So I dutifully went to the Orange store and told the receptionist what I was there for. She directed me outside and told me to turn left and look for… something. It was a word I didn’t recognize but whose closest approximation to one I do know is “la vache.” So, I stepped out the door and looked around rather skeptically for a cow in the parking lot. This being Senegal, I wasn’t sure whether it would take the form of a real live cow or just a picture of a cow on a sign. (Orange’s new mascot, perhaps?) Predictably, I found neither, but I did see a couple of guys sitting underneath one of those temporary wedding gazebo thingies. So I asked them where to go and they said, “Right here.” I responded, “But where is the cow?” They looked at me quizzically. Considering that the only other thing in the parking lot was the gazebo thingy, I pointed upward and asked, “What is this called?” They answered, “une bâche.” Riddle solved.

But Google Translate tells me that “une bâche” is a tarpaulin. While I might refer to the sheet laying on top of the thing we were standing under as a tarpaulin, I wouldn’t use that word to refer to the whole sideless-tent contraption. So that means I now know two words/phrases in French that I don’t have a word or phrase for in English.

– In the midst of an in-depth conversation that was going rather well, I told someone that something was “obvi” to me. The person I was speaking to was completely baffled. So I clarified in English, “Obvious.” He laughed and laughed and told me that obvi was “cute.” I have no idea how I came up with this nonsense word except that “obvs” is young person shorthand for “obvious” in English, so maybe my brain short-circuited and thought I could do the same in French? Or maybe I just fell back on my handy trick of saying English words I don’t know in a French accent and hoping for the best? (Half the time it works. And in fact, it would have been just fine had I gone with apparent, évident, claire, or visible instead. But I chose the one synonym that could not be Frenchified.)

– The night after a mass shooting in the States, dinner table conversation among my Senegalese hosts and their Senegalese guests turned almost immediately from sympathy to political commentary, as I silently smoldered with grief and increasing agitation. When I got up abruptly they asked me what I thought and I replied more emotionally than I would have liked, “Je ne veux pas parler. On est en grève.” But what I meant to say was, “On est en deuil.” The former means “on strike,” while the latter means, “in mourning.” I always mix up the two, probably because grève reminds me of grave and they both start with “en.” Anyway, I didn’t realize I had made a mistake until it was too late to correct it. At the time, I thought their shocked faces were a reaction to the force of my conviction, but it turns out it was more an illustration of their utter confusion.

– I am endlessly mixing up moulu, or ground, with mouillé, or wet. I brought back coffee beans from Ethiopia and kept asking where I could get them wet. On the other hand, after a rain storm I reported that I was completely ground. My misuse has verged on the perverse…

– As has my confounding of sale, sel and salé, or dirty, salt, and salty/savory, respectively. When I’m not shocking people with this particular set of mix-ups, I’m offending (and sometimes both). I’ve called myself salty and lovely-looking fresh-cooked meals dirty, and on more than one occasion I’ve told servers that I am in the mood for something dirty. I can only hope that this phrase doesn’t have the same nuance in French as it does in English.

– This one is not my own faux pas, but I was part of the audience for it. I was having dinner with an American woman and a Senegalese man and I can’t remember why but we were talking about various medical topics. The woman asked the man, “Quel type de singe as tu?” As in, what type of monkey do you have? She meant to ask him, “Quel type de sang as tu?” or, “What blood type do you have?” But as is often the case with faux pas, the native speaker couldn’t figure out what the foreign speaker could have possibly meant to say, and the foreign speaker couldn’t figure out what the problem was. And I was too busy laughing at both of them to help clear up the confusion.

More to come, I’m 100% sure…

[Photo: Brad]

weekend, weekday, what’s the difference

This has been a devastating week, and I am devastated. It would be wise for me to avoid making political statements in public forums because of my work as a quasi-journalist (I say quasi because I don’t make videos for media; I make videos for mission-driven organizations). But it’s hard to convince my professional self-interest to override my personal need to acknowledge the absolute horror of the current situation, before going back to my comparatively inane subject matter of language learning and travel loving. And also, it offends me to think about what happened on Tuesday as strictly political, as though the survival of the planet and the protection and equality of marginalized groups is a question of politics rather than one of fundamental humanity.

Anyway, I will say this and then attempt to shut up about it (only on this blog, not in my personal life): humanity got us into this mess, and humanity will now have to get us out of it. The tragedy of the human condition is that we’re constantly repeating our history and digging our own graves while convinced we’re acting in our own best interest. But the beauty is that, as a species at least, we have a huge capacity for hope, community, solidarity, inspiration, creativity, resilience, organization, mobilization, and resistance, even in the darkest of times. I am going to draw upon all of those things in the coming days and months, because God knows if I don’t, I’ll succumb to absolute and utter despair not to mention fail in my responsibility as a human being in the family of man.

Actually, just one last thing. This week has been a wake-up call for me. I’ve realized that I repeatedly acknowledge my various forms of privilege as a “Not it!” of sorts, a substitute – often though not always – for doing the much harder work of dismantling it. It’s not that I’m all talk and no action; it’s just that I don’t do nearly enough.

I’m pretty good at keeping promises to myself, as this blog attests. So this week I promised myself to do more, much more, than I am currently doing. I’m still working out what doing more will look like but I know it’ll be a four-pronged approach: education/listening, time/volunteering, money/donating, and activism/policy and legislation.

Okaaaaay…. Now for your weekend links! As though this week was all just a bad Kafka dream and you can trouble yourself with anything other than how the fuck (as Aaron Sorkin said, there is a time for this kind of language and it’s now) to mitigate the damage:

My Latina friend’s dad wore this awesome (af) hat on election day. As soon as I sufficiently master French I’m going to reward myself with one.

On the wellness vacation.

Almost a billion people have traveled abroad so far this year, and other interesting statistics on global tourism.

Colorful map depicts what languages New Yorkers speak at home.