mission update

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It has been a month since my last post. I don’t know why I haven’t written. It’s not like I’ve been too busy. In fact, I have had more time on my hands than I know what to do with. I’ve spent much of it dedicating myself to something that Jean-Paul Belmondo, in my favorite line from Breathless, calls “improving Franco-American relations.” But for some reason my brain and body are unwilling to devote any mental or physical resources to more puritanically productive pursuits like writing or finding a job or studying my French verb conjugations.

Instead, I have spent far too many hours lazing about with a growing sense of distress at my inability to snap out of it. Last week I finally gave myself a strongly worded pep talk and since then I have been getting back, slowly, to responsible-person things. Today I’m forcing myself to write something here even though the words are coming slow as molasses and I circle back every five seconds to approach from a new angle.

I have been wanting to report on my progress attempting to fall in love with Paris. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to unlock some hidden depths of feeling for this city, though I can’t say I’ve fallen heads over heels yet. But I have felt the first stirrings of passion, and I’m pretty sure it has everything to do with my repeated return to the following activities: Continue reading

a very happy blogiversary

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Three years ago today, at home in Brooklyn, I wrote my first post for this blog, which I had conceived as an exercise in keeping my eyes on the prize. What prize? My big new dream was to spend two years saving up money while practicing my high school French and re-learning elementary Spanish, and then to move to Senegal followed by Argentina a year later. It was a ridiculously ambitious dream… but I did it all. Well, not Argentina. Not yet, anyway. Paris somehow got thrown into the mix first, the result of a post-Brexit fear that my EU citizenship might not be around to open Europe’s doors for me much longer.

The point is that I actively changed my life from one that was boring me and leaving me unfulfilled to the one I had dreamed about having since I was a kid. This blog has borne witness to all of that, and so I deeply appreciate this blog. Likewise, I deeply appreciate everyone who has followed along with my journey, whether dropping in once or reading every post.

Who knows what this year will bring. Maybe I’ll run out of steam (read: money) and go back to New York. Maybe I’ll return to Dakar. Maybe I’ll move on to Barcelona or Buenos Aires or somewhere else entirely. Maybe I’ll fall in love with Paris (I’m really, really trying) and stay. It’s all very, beautifully unclear. (And also very scary, let’s be honest.)

Whatever happens, I will write about it here.

[P.S. The photo has nothing to do with this blog post, but I took it last night when I was out in what apparently has become a hopping neighborhood of Paris. It amuses me. These poor residents just want to get some peace and quiet, but little do they realize that draping an indignant sign out your window (it says: silence, [we have] the right to sleep) is an invitation for rowdy revelers to yell even louder. At least it is in America. Maybe French young people have more respect.

and another thing…

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As I said yesterday, I’ve now been to Paris four times. The first time was in June or July almost 23 years ago. The second time was in March of the year 2000. The third was in January, two winters ago. And finally, I’m here again in April. Thus, three out of four seasons are quite well represented.

And yet… can anyone tell me why the temperature has been pretty much exactly the same every time I’ve visited? Is it ever not 53 degrees in Paris? (Fahrenheit, people.)

And why, WHY, does it always feel more like 33? This morning I actually stood in front of an outdoor chicken rotisserie broiler to warm up.

Despite my lack of pure unadulterated love for Paris, I’ve been finding it highly enjoyable to be here under my current circumstances (unemployed yet with a certain sense of possibility). I keep breaking into the widest grins while walking down the wide boulevards and happening upon things like the Benoit Hamon rally at place de la République last night. But… this weather is really cramping my style. It takes me like an hour to will myself out of bed in the morning, as though it’s mid-January. I didn’t bring my winter coat with me, and there’s only so many layers I can put on in a day without looking like a bag lady.

So I’m cangry. There’s hangry for hunger-induced anger and now I’m officially coining cangry for cold-induced anger. Oh wait, it already exists.  I bet whoever beat me to it is Parisian.

[Photo of Paris from the air, oh whoops, my mistake, it’s actually the Arctic tundra: Jack French.]

Paris as Bradley Cooper

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Yesterday as I was strolling the stunning streets of Paris, I began again to wonder why I have such a chip on my shoulder about this lovely city. None of my explanations were plausible, until I decided to apply my “city as boyfriend” analogy, and then all of a sudden it made sense. My relationship to Paris is exactly like my relationship with Bradley Cooper.

Which is not to claim that Bradley Cooper is my boyfriend. He is not, nor will he ever be. That’s the point.

Everybody loves Bradley Cooper. They think he is the most beautiful, sexy man on the planet. In his real-life presence, they become giddy and take beaming selfies. There are some who would even pay extravagent amounts of money to spend the night with him.

Me, not a chance. I acknowledge that Bradley Cooper has exceptionally beautiful eyes, but that’s where it ends. He seems like a standard-issue faux-hunk who has cultivated nothing soulful below the surface. The chemistry is just not there. And what’s more, he seems to have an air about him of the arrogant A-lister who thinks only the hottest babes are worthy of him. So, if I ever crossed his path, I’d make a point of turning on my heel and walking the other way before he could take the non-time to look right through me.

And that’s Paris and me in a nutshell. The three times I’ve been here before, I could not love the city because I was sure the city would not find me worthy of loving back. I thought I didn’t look good enough, dress well enough, or speak French elegantly enough.

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I suppose I could have fallen for Paris anyway, given my romantic predisposition to run after those who don’t give me the time of day. But, like Bradley Cooper, I was never that attracted to Paris to begin with. While I recognize that the city is objectively gorgeous, it does not move me in the way that, say, Barcelona with its wonder-inducing Gaudís does. All this week, I’ve been walking past jaw-dropping buildings, and while they do fill me with delight, I also feel a sense of disconnection and resentment of their superfluous, easy beauty. 

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They remind me of Victoria’s Secret models. The kind favored by Bradley Cooper, not so incidentally. Is there anything that’s strikingly peculiar or unconventionally dazzling about this place? Anything that is lovable and wonderful rather than simply stunning? Until I arrived last week, I found that prospect doubtful.

Now that I’m here, I realize that’s ridiculous. There must be. I am trying hard to withhold judgement and to earnestly search it out. I realize it’s equally ridiculous to think that an entire city is judging me. No one cares. Parisians are just going about their business, and there is no velvet rope keeping me from joining them.

That said, I should also withhold judgment of Bradley Cooper. I do not know him nor have any basis to tell what he is really like. For all I know, he could be an unselfconsciously offbeat sweetheart. Perhaps he loves playing gin rummy with his grandma. Perhaps he has three pet hamsters named after Hollywood royalty. Perhaps he still writes to his Kenyan pen-pal from the fifth grade. Doubtful, but possible.

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[Top photo of Bradley Cooper in Paris: Just Jared; Bottom photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Europe]

my favorite pictures from Dakar

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Because I’m in NYC feeling reverse homesickness, if you will, here are the pix that I love the most from my time in Dakar.

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The architecture I love combined with the car rapides that I love = a feast for the eyes.IMG_7236 copy

On Tamkharit (or Tamxarit), a week after the Islamic new year, Muslim friends and relatives of the family I lived with brought around huge bowls of a spiced millet couscous and a sweet stew called thiere. The picture above represents perhaps half of the generosity shown to the Lo family by their Dakarois neighbors. On every holiday, I was touched by how many people stopped by to visit and drop off food. IMG_7436 copy

And on my own holiday – Thanksgiving – I made an American feast for the family. It was a really fun night.

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I went with Mamie and Tantie Lo to a fabric market to pick out material for a dress Mamie needed made before a wedding. She waded deep into the piles upon piles of fabric and I love the expression on her face as she listened to Tantie advising her from the street.IMG_7119 copy

And I love this one of Tantie and Mamie and me. We were getting “sundowners,” as they call sunset drinks in Dakar (I could never figure out if this was a British or French expression), at a hotel bar overlooking the ocean.

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One morning I came downstairs to catch everyone in the household in the same exact pose. I found it fairly adorable.

I loved living with the Lo’s. They were endlessly warm and welcoming, and through them I learned what daily life is really like in Dakar. (I also got incredible French practice.)

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Seeing Youssou N’Dour from front row seats on the eve of Senegalese Independence Day was hands down my best night in Dakar.

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One day many months into my stay in Dakar, I happened upon this baguette truck in my neighborhood. From then on I saw it everywhere, and I swooned every time. IMG_20170211_233743081 copy 2One of my last nights out was for a women’s association event hosted by the matriarch of the Lo family. A Tuareg man from Timbuktu, Mali was at the table next to mine, and until the “Parade of Nations” at like 2 in the morning, I didn’t realize that he was carrying a sword as part of his traditional dress for that parade. I thought he must trot it out for every special occasion, and I was in awe. Just goes to show: never draw conclusions based on observations of cultures that are unfamiliar to you.IMG_20170214_161939270 copy 2

My last month in Dakar, I raced my way through every spot left on my “to see” list. Yoff beach was one of those places, and once I saw it I regretted not having come earlier so that I could revisit. It is miles of beachfront, at one end of which is where many of Dakar’s fishers dock their boats. The line-up of brightly painted pirogues, the wandering sheep, the horse-drawn carts, and the fishermen and fish market saleswomen running to and fro creates a very picturesque tableau.

And now, I turn tearfully back to the reality of New York in the supposed Spring…

12 months, 12 countries

I came to Senegal hoping I’d be lucky enough to see a bit of this country and a few others nearby. Things worked out beyond my wildest dreams, and I ended up visiting 12 new countries in 12 months, a personal record. Half the trips were for work, half for vacation, but all of them were a pleasure to see. (Though they were definitely not pleasurable at every moment, to say the least.)

I’ll share my favorite pictures from Dakar later, but first, here in one place are my travelogues from all the countries I visited from last February to this January.

Senegal: the western and northern parts, and a central / southern part

Portugal

Morocco: Marrakech and Casablanca

Liberia

Ethiopia

Tanzania: safari on the mainland and Zanzibar

South Africa: Cape Town and Johannesburg

Benin

Mauritania

Burkina Faso

The Gambia

Cape Verde: Cidade Velho, Praia, and Mindelo, and the island of Santo Antão

And with that, I’m off to the airport, America-bound…

handmade in Senegal

Just in case my baggage gets lost en route to New York, here are the clothes I had made from the fabric I bought in Senegal, Benin and Ethiopia.

The only thing I didn’t end up liking is the blue, orange, and yellow shirt (top row, center). It was supposed to be a fairly androgynous camp shirt just like this zebra one.

But it turned out looking more like a woman’s leisure suit jacket from the 70s. I gave it to Mamie and somehow it looks awesome on her.

The zebra shirt, by the way, is the only thing I ordered from a different tailor than Adama Paris. I walked by a children’s clothing shop, Bapribap, in my neighborhood one day and saw the cutest zebra shirt for little boys, along with an adorable wax-print romper for little girls. I went in and asked if they could make them in adult sizes, and indeed they could. So I ordered one zebra shirt for me and one for my 2 year-old nephew. 🙂 A few weeks ago I went back to the shop and bought something like nine other outfits for my nieces and my friends’ babies. They are all going to look so cute, just the thought of it makes me giddy. Plus I was really happy to support the business of someone I became friends with over the course of my year here. Annica is awesome, and she happens to be married to the reporter I worked with a few months ago (who I met separately, because like I said, it’s a small ex-patriot world).

All in all, not a bad haul, huh?

:(

Today is my last full day in Senegal. Not to beat this subject to death but I’m really really really really sad.

I’m spending today going around to all my regular places saying my goodbyes, and tonight I’m having a gathering of “family” and friends on my terrace. You are invited, sort of! Dakar just got Google Street View, so you can join me in spirit by virtually visiting where I lived for one incredible year.

Start on my street corner, explore my neighborhood, venture up to Almadies and down to Plateau… Then maybe you’ll get a teeny tiny idea of why I love this city so much. But I somehow doubt it. You just have to be here.

P.S. The weather report for New York is giving me an anxiety attack.

Sénégal, tu me manques déjà et je ne t’ai même pas quitté.

I’ve been finding myself crying at the drop of a hat in this, my last week in Dakar. A few of the things that have brought me to tears:

sabar dancers and drummers rehearsing in the cultural center.

– a taxi driver scolding Mamie, and Mamie scolding him back, after we got into his car. (Taxi drivers will often agree to come down to the fare you offer them but then pester you for being so cheap. It reminds me of Israel, where everyone is up in everyone else’s face and it doesn’t seem lighthearted, but it is.)

– being stuck in traffic at twilight while Senegal Rekk was playing on the radio and the taxi driver was chit chatting with the drivers on either side of him.

– taking a car rapide in which we were squeezed in like sardines. Car rapides are, in my view, the most iconic and beautiful image of Dakar, though they are really not roadworthy.

– getting lost on the streets of Ouakam, as previously noted.

It’s funny how annoying things somehow become heart-breakingly beautiful when you are about to leave them behind.

I mean, I think I will even miss power cuts.

One sultry autumn night soon after I got back from Benin there was a power outage right before the sun set, and we lit candles, turned on our phones’ flashlights, and sat quietly around the table drinking the Beninoise tea I had had every night in Cotonou and had attempted to recreate at home. It’s made with fresh ginger, a limey type of lemon, honey, and mint, and it lulls you to sleep better than Nyquil.

I usually don’t mess with the gas cylinder on the first floor that everyone in my household uses, and on the rare occasions when I cook, I instead opt for the more familiar oven and range on the second floor. For some reason, I attempted to give the cylinder a shot that night, under the most challenging circumstances possible. Trying to turn the little knob down low enough so that the boiling water didn’t overflow all over the place, but not so low that the flame was extinguished and had to be relit, in the pitch dark, while holding a flashlight in one hand, was rather difficult. But I was in a good mood, and it felt like a fun adventure.

As did the entirety of my year here, really. How am I supposed to say goodbye when I don’t want it to end?

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.]