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.

Senegal, kay lekk! (If you don’t know what that means, read today’s earlier post.)

One summer when I was home from college, I trained to be a Philadelphia trolley tour guide. (I was too lazy to study for the exam so I never actually became one.) I don’t remember much of what I learned about my quasi-hometown’s history, but I do remember a piece of advice that a seasoned guide gave us during an instructional tour. He said that if we ever forgot the name of a landmark, we could take an educated guess that it was Franklin [Hospital / Square / Bridge / Museum / Parkway / Institute / Etc.], because, “9 times out of 10 it’s Ben.

In Senegal, a bastardization of this rule can be perfectly applied to food. If you’re not sure what you’re going to be eating on any given day, well:

“9 times out of 10 it’s thieboudienne.” 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

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.]

time travel in Dakar

A few hours ago, I stopped to take a picture of this amazing truck only to discover more amazingness inside…

It was a baguette van making its early evening deliveries! When I got closer I could smell the scent of freshly baked loaves wafting out the windows. I wished Robert Doisneau were around to properly capture the magic. But alas, just me and my iPhone.

I bought a newspaper-wrapped baguette at an appropriately circa 1950s price – about 30 cents – and whistled my way home. (Sadly, my gluten-intolerant self can’t actually eat the baguette but someone in my household will!)

exotic fruits of Senegal

A roundup of some of the delicious and new-to-me fruits I’ve sampled since being in Senegal:

Madd is a seasonal fruit, available during the summer months, that seems to be most popular simmered with sugar and pepper down to a compote of small chunks of flesh in a sweet, sour, and spicy syrup.

You suck on the mouth-puckering pulp until you get to the stone-like seed.

I knew the baobab tree was important to Senegal symbolically but I didn’t realize it is also important nutritionally. Baobab fruit (also known here as bouye) is a superfood, packed with vitamins and nutrients.

When I tasted it fresh from the tree, it was powdery yet sticky, and like madd, both sweet and sour. I’ve also had it in biscuit, jelly, and juice/smoothie form.

I find the biscuit form rather weird, but the latter two are delicious – though sometimes far too sweet depending on how much sugar is added. It’s a strange paradox to me: Rather than gorge on all the French pastries available to them, the Senegalese usually opt for fruit as their go-to dessert. This would seem to indicate a rather weak sweet tooth… And yet they pour sugar into their juice. Perhaps this is like the middle way?

Bissap, known as hibiscus in English, is ubiquitous here. It’s made into jelly and into juice that tastes so much better than the hibiscus tea I’ve had in the States. To make the juice, the dried leaves are boiled and strained, and sugar – and sometimes fresh mint leaves – are added.

Also, since discovering orange blossom water a few months ago at a Lebanese cafe where they added it to my limeade and BLEW MY MIND, we’ve been putting it into bissap juice, which similarly takes it to next-level wonderful.

I’ve also had bissap in ice cream form. Above, a scoop of bissap and a scoop of ginger, both quite tasty.

Ditakh is a kiwi-like fruit that is made into fresh juice. I forgot to take a picture of the homemade version I tried, but here it is in bottled form. (Zena Exotic Fruits is a Lebanese-Senegalese business that turns all of these West-Africa-only fruits into delicious juices and jellies.)

And my favorite local juice that I suppose is not actually from a fruit but whatever: jus de gingembre. Consisting of nothing but fresh ginger and water sometimes mixed with pineapple juice, it’s a potent and delightful drink that burns your throat all the way down.

This post has left me thirsty…

Oh, and I wrote before about the only fruit I’ve tried here that I found absolutely abhorrent: the sour unripe mango.

Sweet and sour seems to be a thing here, but in this case the sour goes way, way too far.

The American Food Store

After eight months of living without many of my most familiar, beloved and/or regularly eaten foods, I finally visited the American Food Store in Almadies. I had been holding out as a point of pride, but also because I was never in the immediate vicinity and didn’t expect to find much there that I’d really want. There’s no way to not sound like a snob saying this, but most American food exports are not the kind of thing I ate in the United States anyway, whether because of dietary restrictions, nutritional preferences, or personal taste.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago on my way to drop off my absentee ballot at the American Embassy, I passed the American Food Store and felt it was time to stop in and see what they had to offer.

Surprisingly, the answer was: the entire range of human emotion. Browsing through the aisles of the American Food Store, I swung widely from one strong feeling to another. There was the joy of cultural recognition when I saw the jumbo-sized canisters of Heinz ketchup, yellow mustard and relish. There was amusement when I spotted the section devoted to beef jerky. There was deep (misplaced) nostalgia at the Jiffy-Pop stove-top popcorn. It was misplaced since when I was a kid we used to make popcorn with a machine, but something about the Americana of it got to me. There was deep (real this time) nostalgia in the candy aisle, with its Mounds and Mars and Three Musketeers and Baby Ruths.

There was delight when I spotted Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups among the chocolate offerings. (Ten minutes later, there was disappointment when I realized that my palate has changed after months abroad, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups now taste more like sucking on a packet of sugar than eating deliciously sweetened peanut butter.)

There was relief when I saw that they sell cans of cranberry sauce, which means that I can attempt to recreate Thanksgiving here in Dakar. There was detachment when I spied Starbucks coffee, a newly stocked item, next to the Café Bustelo and resigned myself to sharing this city with the empire I hate most. There was gratitude when I found gluten-free pasta, and anger when I noted the 300% markup of gluten-free pasta (and everything else).

But mostly there was revulsion. Not to make a mountain out of a molehill… but the United States has really lost its way when it comes to sustenance of both the body (and, I would add, the soul). I already knew that while I was living there, but “dropping in” from somewhere else makes it stand out in sharp relief.

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Six distinctive things about Ethiopia

A few things that stood out to me:

– Their scaffolding is seriously death-defying (or not). Ethiopia was the first time I saw anything like this and I thought it was a unique quirk of the country, but then I saw it in Benin and said a silent prayer for their construction workers, too.

– Juice bars are ubiquitous, and mixed juice smoothies served parfait-style is very popular (and delicious, especially when avocado is one of the layers).

I would think that having juice bars on every corner would be the bi-product of a country in which alcohol is prohibited, but that’s not the case. Maybe they just know that they lucked out in the local fruit lottery (papaya, mango, avocado, pineapple…) and are taking advantage of it?

– As I mentioned before, Ethiopia is the only African country not to have been colonized by the West.

– Ethiopian cuisine is entirely unique.

The ancient grain, teff, is grown throughout Ethiopia and hardly anywhere else in the world. Since teff is what injera is made out of, and since injera is served with almost everything, it means that Ethiopian food tastes different than any other food on earth (except for maybe Eritrean?…).

Here’s a recent New York Times article about how Ethiopia is negotiating the tricky balance of bringing teff to the world market without rendering it out of reach of Ethiopians. (As was the case with quinoa in South America.)

– I have never seen anything like Ethiopian shoulder dancing, aka eskista:

I can’t say it (literally) moves me, but it does fascinate me.

– They use their own quirky clock (and their own calendar), and it definitely doesn’t match their official time zone. This article explains.

breakfast of Senegalese champions

This millet porridge is called lakh and it’s the traditional breakfast across Senegal. It’s really heavy and in olden days was perfect for keeping farmers full all morning in the fields. If you’re a working stiff with a desk job, though, it’s a bit of a soporific, so these days in Dakar a baguette with Nutella or Chocopain (the Senegalese equivalent, made with peanuts instead of hazelnuts) is a more typical morning meal.

Traditionally, lakh is eaten with sweetened lait caillé – fermented milk, sort of like a very pungent yogurt. But here the Lo ladies are just eating regular store-bought yogurt and some condensed milk on top.

It is delicious and filling and a gluten-free alternative to the rice cakes I’ve been eating every morning and which got really old really fast (even smeared with exotic bissap/hibiscus or baobab jelly).

I wonder why millet isn’t more popular in the States. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before people start saying that millet is the new quinoa. Although amaranth might get there first…