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
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
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. 🙂 )
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.]
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.
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.