On several occasions, I’ve noted the many reasons to learn Spanish. But I have never done the same for the language I’ve devoted far more time to learning. So, here are ten very good albeit very personal reasons to learn French: Continue reading
Monthly Archives: March 2017
assorted musings on an anxious return
As I prepare to return to the United States for my first visit in more than a year, I am worried not about reverse culture shock, but about the possibility of its absence. I’ve been wondering how much of that nervousness is due to pride and how much is due to something else worth paying attention to.
Here’s the part that ego plays: I find myself fearing that if I fall seamlessly back into American life, it means that I wasn’t gone long enough or immersed deeply enough for it to have been, you know, real. When I moved to Los Angeles after college I held a similar (and similarly misguided) belief: that the longer I stayed away from home, the more adult and independent I must be. I flew out there in November of 2001 and didn’t return to the East Coast to see my family or friends until I had a wedding to go to, two summers later. I wasn’t as aware then as I am now that I was trying to prove something to myself, but how much is self-awareness worth if it doesn’t stop you from pulling the same stupid stunts? (To be fair, this time I stayed away for so long for the purpose of taxes rather than self-validation. 🙂 But I must admit that my sense of accomplishment deepens with every additional month I spend abroad.)
But on the other hand…
I’d like to think that I’ve grown and changed for the better this past year because I’ve internalized the lessons and lifestyle that I’ve learned here, not because circumstances forced me to behave differently. If the latter, I’ll go right back to my old self the moment I get back to my old home, even though that old self was not nearly as happy as my current self. I’m thinking specifically about my patterns of consumption. The everything-anywhere-all the time ways of American society numb my soul and literally sicken me (and I mean literally quite literally, e.g. gluten intolerance, acid reflux, anxiety), and yet I find it all so alluring and impossible to resist. Case in point: I have actually fantasized in great detail about being reunited with the closet full of clothes I left behind. I am afraid I will react to seeing them much like Annette Bening at the end of “American Beauty.”
Thus, Ruth vs capitalism is an unresolvable conflict, and it seems the only solution is to remove myself from the situation. Senegal worked well for me; it’s like capitalism lite here. It was such a pleasure to not be marketed to every second of every day, and I ended up living in a way that was much more aligned with my values, and ultimately much more meaningful and satisfying.
So, going back to full-fat capitalism is legitimately scary for me. I am psyching myself up to resist the temptation to spend and acquire and gorge (and guilt myself and regret and feel empty). But that stuff has a powerful pull, and I would welcome reverse culture shock insofar as it would help to push me in the opposite direction.
Another quasi-legitimate fear is that I will leave Senegal only to find that it has left no mark – that I had a chameleon-like ability to adjust to it without really becoming a part of it or it becoming a part of me. And that would make me sad. (Much as I felt sad when, after finally starting to organically call people “y’all” in my fourth and last year in Austin, the word disappeared from my speech the moment I returned to the East Coast. And though I missed its presence – and the feeling that I had become a tiny bit Texan – I could not bring myself to force its usage.) It’s silly in some ways, but still psychically important. So I really do hope that upon arriving home, some formerly normal everyday practice or cultural facet will seem totally bizarre to me, and I will prefer to continue doing it Senegalese style. (What that thing will be, I have no clue. Certainly not washing clothes by hand.)
[P.S. The photo above is the flight map from when I flew to Dakar from my stopover in Brussels. For my return trip, I spent the extra 10,000 airline miles to fly directly to New York, because I know the anticipation will kill me if I have to do the trip in two parts.]
I was visiting a friend at her AirBnB and noticed really beautiful tapestries on the wall. The owner of the apartment told me that they were done with a traditional Senegalese design, which surprised me. I didn’t even know that weaving is a Senegalese handicraft, let alone that there is a specific style. I’ve not once seen tapestries in the artisan shops around town.
Anyway, I was so taken by the tapestries that I went to the guy who wove them to order my own. I chose a design from among the images on his iPad, but I asked him to change the color scheme and make it mostly greens and pinkish reds.
Partway through the weaving process, I came to watch him work. (There is a weaving class in Brooklyn that I wanted to take for years but never got around to. I have a theory that my anxious self is meant not to be a filmmaker but rather a weaver. You still get to use your hands to create art, but instead of it being a stressful process, it’s meditative.)
Even watching the process was mesmerizing. I sat there and stared at Lamin the weaver’s hands moving the thread and his feet moving the pedal until I was in something of a trance. I half-jokingly asked him if he would make me his apprentice, and he promised that if I came back before the tapestry was finished, he would set aside a little bit of loom for me and show me how to weave, and we could work side by side until he was done with my order. I tried so hard to make it back to his atelier on time, but I had a (stressful) edit deadline that I wouldn’t have been able to meet if I spent even the smallest amount of time on new hobbies.
Now it’s too late, since Lamin is done my tapestry and he’s using all the available loom space for a large-scale portrait.
Here’s the finished piece. I love how it turned out. (Please disregard my blue and green sheets peeking out underneath. The tapestry is completely rectangular but I photographed it badly.)
If you are ever in Dakar and want a tapestry and/or to learn how to weave, hit up Lamin! He is in Point E in an atelier at the back of the Centre Socio Culturel, which is very close to the round-point with the Total gas station. (That’s the Dakarois way of giving directions. The non-human-friendly, Google Maps way to say it is Rue G between Allees and Rue 110.)
It’s a small world after all
Before I leave Senegal I would like to point out that West Africa is a very small ex-patriot world. (For the purpose of this discussion, I am considering the Casablanca airport to be an extension of West Africa, because you fly through there or Abidjan to get almost anywhere else in the region. I’ve spent at least 24 hours in that airport over the course of 6 or 7 stops there this past year.)
Here are some of my most notable small world moments:
– Liberia is one of those places that, depending on which day of the week you travel from Dakar, requires a flight north to Casablanca before heading back south to Monrovia. I did that route last June, and on the first plane, I ran into a woman I had met a few weeks before. She was on her way to Niger. We shared a snack in the airport before going our separate ways.
– That wasn’t a huge coincidence. But, while deciding where to eat said snack, I saw another woman I was sure I recognized, and after she noticed me staring at her, we figured out that she had shown me around an apartment for rent in her house a few months before. She was on her way back to Dakar after a vacation in France.
– While in Liberia, I met up for drinks with one of only three friends I had made so far in Dakar. He was passing through Monrovia after being on assignment in the north part of the country and in Guinea; I was finishing up a project in the south and east part of the country. We had perhaps five hours in common in Monrovia, not the most conducive to seeing each other. But I insisted we make it work because it was such a fluke.
– On a different day in Monrovia, I was standing outside a government building when two Americans walked up, and – in a gesture of friendliness from one foreigner to another – introduced themselves to me before heading inside. I recognized one of them from a blog that I had discovered not a week before when I was Googling a tiny town in Liberia to get a better sense of what to expect. The man seemed quite embarrassed when I exclaimed, “I’ve seen your face before – on your wife’s blog!”
– Back to Dakar: In the restaurant where I regularly eat lunch and sometimes stay to work, I ran into the supervisor of several of my projects this year. He was eating dinner with his cousin, who was in town for a business trip. After exchanging a few words about what her job entails, we realized that she works very closely – as in side by side with – my former roommate in Los Angeles.
– I got off to a slow start, but little by little I met the journalists and filmmakers of Dakar. Eventually I noticed that every single one of the former New Yorkers was from the same neighborhood as me, Prospect Heights, or just over the neighborhood’s dividing line in Park Slope. One woman used to bartend at a place where I stopped in quite a bit, so it’s likely she’s served me drinks. Another guy used to live a mere three blocks from me. I can’t imagine that we wouldn’t have passed on the street at least once. Perhaps some psychic wormhole connects a five-block radius in Brooklyn to Dakar.
– A few months ago, an English friend who is researching her PhD in Senegal introduced me to her new friend, another PhD candidate from UCLA. Los Angeles is a city of 4 million people defined by its sprawl. There are hundreds of neighborhoods, almost all of them with clearly defined borders and unique character. Because as an East Coaster I didn’t know how to tell good sprawl from bad sprawl when I first moved to LA, the neighborhood I chose to live in was the exception to this rule. It lacked any and all vibes and was mostly the place where two big freeways intersected. When I told people that I lived in West L.A., they didn’t even realize it was the name of a neighborhood and not just the way to say you live in the western half of the city. All this to preface the crazy coincidence that, as it turns out, the PhD candidate and I lived on the same street, albeit 15 years apart from each other. (I told her she really needs to move.)
As I’m writing this I am becoming aware of a distinct possibility: Perhaps it is not that the ex-patriot world is so small; perhaps it is instead that I am the Kevin Bacon of ex-patriots. (I already knew that I am the Kevin Bacon of celebrity interactions. I challenge you to try me.)
[Photo: Ludovic Mauduit]