Have a good weekend!

It’s my last weekend in Senegal! I am feeling sort of bereft. Last night we were searching out a place that Google Maps had pinpointed exactly but that neither GPS nor the actual layout of the streets would allow us to find in real life. Par for the course. My friends called out to me from down the sandy, silent road – they thought they had figured out the way, while I was busy scoping out another direction – and as I was running to catch up to them, something caught in my throat and my inner voice shouted out at me, “STAY! YOU ARE LEAVING TOO SOON!” But alas, it will always feel too soon, and I’ve got compelling reasons to go exactly when I’m going.

One of those reasons – a small but not insignificant one for someone in my line of work – is that I am in the midst of a full-blown movie drought. Considering that I am in the land of Ousmane Sembène, the most famous African filmmaker, it is really strange that there are no honest-to-goodness movie theaters in Dakar. Apparently the last one closed in the 90’s or early 2000’s. Instead, there are small screening rooms, like the one I went to at the French Institute (pictured above) to see a documentary about the way that rumba on either side of the Atlantic has cross-pollinated with the other side. (Perfect subject, mediocre film.) There is also a full-sized movie screen in a supposedly temporary inflatable structure near the shopping center on the waterfront.

I tried going to the movies there the few times they looked good enough to bother. The first couple of times were fails of my own doing. The third time, there were “technical difficulties” and they told me to come back the next week. The fourth time was the charm, and I saw “Fences” there the night before the Oscars. But it was hard to hear the dialogue because the structure kept making weird sucking noises and expanding and contracting like it was breathing. A pretty subpar theatre; I hadn’t been missing much by staying away.

Meanwhile, the films they play on TV are either terrible and/or overdubbed in French, which I find impossible to watch. (My theory is that since I rely a lot upon lip-reading to understand French, my brain gets hopelessly confused when watching people whose mouths don’t match the words coming out of them.) And I can’t stream movies on my laptop in my room because of my horrible Internet situation (which, by the way, I’ve realized is a product not only of the slow wi-fi in my neighborhood, but also of the very thick walls in my building. I may just have the worst Internet connection in town.) Thus I’ve seen a grand total of exactly four full movies in Senegal. By contrast, I probably saw 100 the previous year.

So, I am leaving Senegal too soon, but I also can’t get back to movies soon enough. I am so excited to catch up on all that I’ve missed and to watch some new releases in one of my favorite New York cinemas.

Now… switching abruptly to your weekend reads, and flailing for a transition. How about, you are excused from reading these if you go to the movies instead?

Enjoy your weekends!

There is an earphone coming out that will translate foreign language speech into your own language.

Apparently in France I may be heading towards exactly what I was running away from in New York: the creeping big-boxification of urban spaces.

“Everybody, let’s tighten the anus,” is apparently a Korean folksong, and you can watch a video of its performance, with delightful subtitles. (There is also a link to a research paper about its social and cultural meaning!)

Have you ever heard of Romansh, Switzerland’s fourth official language? (I had not.)

Too old to learn a language? Don’t believe it.

US citizens traveling to Europe may soon need a visa.

Beautiful photos of Portugese fishing in the 1950s.

Well, this is a relief for someone like me, who takes forever to spit out her thoughts: fast talkers and slow talkers end up conveying the same amount of information in the same amount of time.

What gets easier when you study more languages?

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.]

my tapis

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]

My plans, or lack thereof

So… I’m leaving Dakar. Which I know sounds ridiculous coming just days after I posted a love letter to the city. I meant every word of it, and I’m sure I would fall even harder the longer I stayed. But sometimes you can’t be with the one you love. Continue reading

Cultural relativism in action

Do you know what these fully grown and otherwise normal adults are doing?

The Electric Slide.

Yes, the dance of my bat mitzvah memories is also apparently a mainstay at Electrafrique nights here in Dakar. I’ve seen the dance floor taken over by the Electric Slide twice now. Both times it started spontaneously with one or two people. Both times I watched in horror and then fascination as more and more people joined in, oblivious to the fact that the Electric Slide IS IN NO WAY COOL.

I think of this particular line dance as a vestige of my pre-pubescence, and the precursor to the Macarena. I blithely danced it nearly every weekend the year I was 13, wearing socks, a pouffy dress, and a training bra. I would not be caught dead doing it ever again, even in jest. And yet… a bunch of really hip Africans and Europeans seem to think it is the COOLEST THING EVER.

That, my friends, is a harmless but potent example of cultural relativism.

Have you experienced something like this recently? I’d love to hear about it…

checking back in with the fears

Just over a year ago, on the cusp of leaving for Senegal, I jotted down a list of my fears about picking up and moving abroad with no job and very little idea of what to expect. I would now like to revisit that list, because it’s a good signpost of how far I’ve traveled both mentally and physically: Continue reading

my one year Sene-versary

ile de ngor.jpg
One year ago today I arrived in Senegal. Just yesterday, I posted a love letter to my home for the past year, Dakar, so I won’t do that again today. Instead, I will post a most fitting love letter to myself.

I, after all, got me here.

Dear Ruth:

Now, I’ve had the time of my life. No, I never felt like this before. Yes, I swear, it’s the truth, and I owe it all to you.

I’ve been waiting for so long, now I’ve finally found someone to stand by me. We saw the writing on the wall as we felt this magical fantasy. Now with passion in our eyes, there’s no way we could disguise it secretly. So we take each other’s hand, ‘cause we seem to understand the urgency.

Just remember: you’re the one thing I can’t get enough of. So I’ll tell you something – this could be love, because I’ve had the time of my life. No, I never felt this way before. Yes I swear, it’s the truth, and I owe it all to you.

‘Cause I’ve had the time of my life, and I’ve searched though every open door, ’til I found the truth, and I owe it all to you.

XOXOXO,

me / you

P.S. We can build this dream together, standing strong forever, nothing’s gonna stop us now. And if this world runs out of lovers, we’ll still have each other. Nothing’s gonna stop us, nothing’s gonna stop us now.

A Valentine’s Day love letter to Dakar

One year ago today, I broke up with New York and began my journey into the arms of Dakar.

New York was a bad boyfriend that I stuck with so long only because I have attachment issues. I kept saying to myself, maybe if I do x, y, or z, NYC will finally return the love. It didn’t happen, because New York doesn’t love people; New York only loves itself. But because New York is also charismatic, and attractive, and exciting, and always offering interesting stories and whirlwind adventures right when you’re on the verge of saying, “Fuck it, I’m out,” (classic mixed signals), I ignored how unhappy my relationship with the city was. Until I couldn’t ignore it any longer, and I started flirting with leaving New York for Dakar.

Coming here was the best decision I ever made. I don’t have a love/hate relationship with Dakar the way I did with New York. That’s because Dakar doesn’t play hard to get. There are no velvet ropes or impossible rental markets or hours-long commutes through dark, crowded holes in the ground. And Dakar gets me. It gets that cities are made for connecting with people, not for throwing money around. It gets that people need to move at the same pace our ancestors did, even if our technology permits us to go much faster. (In Dakar, the technology does not actually permit that, and I’m thankful for it despite my grumblings.) And Dakar still has character. It isn’t being taken over by global capitalism and slowly turned into a cookie cutter version of every other metropolis.

But I don’t want to use Valentine’s Day to pen thinly veiled hate mail to my former flame. Instead – Dakar, let me count the ways that I love you: Continue reading

happy new year!

I don’t know why I keep writing about the new year since I am possibly less enthused about it than anyone else on the planet. But, I did do two fun things to ring in 2017:

On New Year’s Eve a friend hosted dinner at his house and then we went up to the roof to count down to midnight. The annual official fireworks display was cancelled this year due to security concerns but the Dakarois took it upon themselves to pick up the slack. For at least a half hour, fireworks popped off every few seconds, every which way you turned. My photographic evidence, unfortunately, is not much proof at all… I managed to capture exactly one remotely-in-focus firework on my iphone.

I asked the people I was with to forgive my Eeyore-ness but to please help me come up with something, anything, to make me hopeful about 2017. Here’s the best we could do: a highly effective ebola vaccine has just been cleared for use in case of another outbreak, and the recent Chinese ivory ban means fewer elephants will die. (I would welcome your additions to this rather sad “list.”)

The next day, I went with Mamie, Tantie, their cousin, and a couple of friends to see Youssou N’Dour’s annual New Year’s concert. Mamie insisted that we get there before 10pm because she was sure the show would start early, it being a work night. I have been in Senegal less than a year, yet found myself setting straight someone who’s lived here her whole life. I told her, “If this show starts before 1am, 2017 really is bringing the end times with it.” And like clockwork, Youssou came onstage at 1:03 am. At 4:03 am, he was still running up and down the catwalks like a man half his age, and I had decided that third time’s the charm and I am done seeing him in Senegal. It’s a constant battle between enjoying the music and wanting desperately to be in bed, and with each show the old lady in me tugs a little harder towards the latter.

Speaking of being an old lady: at 12:30 after standing in the suffocating and pushy crowd near the stage for two hours, I had had enough and abandoned my group to go hang out at the periphery. There, I could breathe, but I also felt rather hopeless and adrift. This was a really bad omen for the year ahead. Then a man who had lugged over a plastic chair for himself offered it to me to stand on instead, so that I could see the stage. And then the woman on the chair next to mine put her arm around my shoulder, commanded sweetly, “Il faut dancer!” and led me in a distinctly Senegalese dance move with her arm around me the whole time. Normally I’m all about personal space but the woman’s generosity of spirit – bringing me into her joyful fold when she saw I was deflated and alone – changed my mind about 2017. I decided that the omen before had been a false one, and that this was in fact the real sign. We are never as isolated as we feel, and things are never as bad as they seem.

Here’s the concert, if you’d like to watch. It was so good, as always.

(I love the first song in the video above, and the one at 57:57 is my all-time favorite.)

(Another one of my favorites is at 26:27.)