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Donn was tickling Elliot and pressed down a little on his stomach. Elliot: “Don’t do that Dad! You’ll give me hypochondria!”
And ah, the innocence of children. We drove past a retirement center called “Camelot,” complete with crenellated tower and plastic flags. The children all loved the idea of living in a castle, so we explained it was just for retirees. Elliot said, “Since I’m going to be a professor of the Moyenne age (Middle Ages) maybe I should live there when I retire!”
Everyone is so…freakin’…friendly here! People keep smiling at me as I walk down the street. It’s very strange. I keep glancing down, wondering if perhaps my skirt is tucked up in the back, or if I have a large smear of mustard on my t-shirt or something. But no. Everyone is just so…nice.
Store clerks greet me. They inquire solicitously after my health and frame of mind. I buy things, and people urge me to have a nice day.
The children aren’t used to this, and respond with more enthusiasm then is perhaps necessary or even desired. Elliot, especially, feels the need to explain to complete strangers where we live, how we just arrived, how fascinating we are. At least that’s how it feels to me, but everyone is so, well, nice to him.
And men that I don’t even know keep wanting to shake my hand! This is very strange for me. I went to church with my in-laws on Sunday, and afterwards so many people shook my hands. In Mauritania, men and women don’t shake hands. Men greet women verbally, and women hug and kiss each other. Men will hug each other, if they have a good relationship. But Islam prohibits men and women from touching each other at all.
But it’s not always this simple. Men who have traveled and who know something of Western culture might legitimately want to shake my hand, respecting my culture as I try to respect theirs. But others, viewing me as Western which equals immoral (whaddya mean you’re not exactly like Jennifer Aniston on Friends?), will try to shake my hand and hold on just a leetle bit too long. Creepy. I have to make a split-second judgement on whether or not to take each proffered hand; is this guy looking for an illicit thrill with a wild white woman, or is he just a nice, well-traveled man who wants to say hi? It’s exhausting.
On Sunday, I found myself starting to make those split-second decisions, then squelching them and remembering that I’m in America again. I shook many hands. At least this is better than the time I went from Mauritania to France, where the men greet you with a kiss on each cheek.
I’m working on being more friendly myself. So have a nice day, y’hear? And thanks so much for stopping by.
We made it. In spite of dire predictions, all our transitions were smooth—so smooth, in fact, as to be boring.
It was exhausting however. At 6:30 a.m., after being up all night, we were ushered into a transit lounge in the Casablanca airport, where we sat on uncomfortable yellow plastic chairs for the next 5 hours. There was just nothing to do. Then, on the plane from Casa to NY, there were no movies or kid fun packs. We were ok—we slept, we ate, we dozed, we read. We’d heard horror stories about JFK—how we needed at least 4 hours for transit, how we’d get hassled, etc. None of it was true. JFK was easy. Everyone was nice, friendly, welcoming…so much so that we had another 2 hours just sitting at our gate.
This is America, however, so no problem—there were bookstores with new books and magazines to drool over, and a Starbucks to smell. The kids enjoyed riding an “escalvator” and had a lot of fun with an automatic revolving door.
The inlaws picked us up. At that point, we’d been up for 2 nights, so we were a little out of it. Elliot begged for a Jack in the Box taco—he loves them, in lieu of real food. He calls them “squished meat tacos”—that’s appealing when you’re 10 apparently. We all had tacos, and I ordered a small coke. Welcome to America—it was HUGE!
A Tale of Two American Experiences…
Monday we went to Wal-Mart. (Hey, the inlaws live in a small town in the California desert, and there aren’t a lot of options.) It was all I expected it to be. The vast interior stretched into the distance, the fluorescent lights hummed softly, the music playing took me right back to junior high school. I wandered the floor in a daze. Everything was so bright, everything was so cheap, everything was so jumbled, everything was so overwhelming. You could buy anything! We passed cheap DVDs, we saw cheap shoes, we studied cheap computer games, the kids chose cheap sweet cereal. Did you know you can buy pizza crusts, ready-made? Did you know that cereal boxes are enormous? Did you know that a 10 pack of Capri-Suns are less than $2? How is this possible, you ask. “Capri-Sonnes” are the latest addition to the trendy set of import stores in Mauritania—they are $1 apiece.
I dodged people riding little carts down the wide aisles and ignored the screaming colours of the brightly-packaged junk food. I needed lotion. You wouldn’t believe how many different kinds of lotion there are. In Nouakchott, you can buy Nivea or, well, Nivea. There’s the kind for babies, and the kind for adults. There is the kind for normal skin or the kind with almond oil for dry skin.
It’s not like that at Wal-Mart. There were dozens of varieties. I ignored the Jergans and the Suave and the Wal-mart brand and the Aveeno and the Healing Aromotherapy Garden Whatever. I just wanted Vaseline Intensive Care and it took me ½ an hour just to choose—there was the kind for aging skin, the kind for dry skin, the kind for day use, the kind for night use, the kind with cucumber and aloe, the kind for hands, the kind for feet, the kind for normal skin, the kind for oily skin. I’m sure there were even more I’ve forgotten. I had my own, quiet reverse culture shock right there.T
hen the whole family decided to go out for lunch for a belated Father’s Day. Another Reverse Culture Shock item for the unwary returning traveler is the fact that everything is a chain. Have we no original stores in this vast country? Not around here, apparently.
We decided to go to Chilis. The hostess greeted us, found us a table, gave us several different kinds of menus (kids, adults, drinks, dessert, etc) The kids coloured happily; the adults discussed why a Kraft macaroni and cheese dinner with a side item and drink would cost $4.
About 10 minutes later, the waitress bounced up. “Have you guys been sitting here long?” she asksd us, wide-eyed. “Cuz I saw you here but I didn’t realize you were my table! They switched everything around on me! Gosh, I’m so sorry! Have you been here long?” We mutely shook our heads no. We’d been talking. But she felt so badly that we’d been there so long (so long?) without anyone to look after us that she gave us free chips and salsa. Her service was extremely fast, although she made a few mistakes. We didn’t quibble over them; after all, the portions were huge and if we sent something back, it would just be thrown out. That bothers me too much; and even with minor mistakes, everything tastes terrific.
Nowhere else in the world do you get this kind of service. “Everything ok folks?” “You’ve been waiting 10 minutes so let me give you something free.” “That iced tea has free refills.” “Can I get you anything else?” Nowhere else do kids’ menus exist—kids just eat what the adults eat, period—much less kids’ menus with games and free crayons, free cute little cups, all the soda pop they can drink, at least until Mom steps in and limits it. It’s not that restaurants abroad don’t give free things—just a few months ago, at the opening of a new restaurant in Nouakchott, the waiter gave us a free plate of Tunisian pastries (YUM!) and a free cup of coffee to celebrate. But it’s different, and not just because he was an hour late with our meal.
At lunch, the food portions are enormous and everything tastes wonderful. We go home, sated, to nap under an AC while the kids splash in the pool. (Jet lag lingers). Welcome home—it’s got things you like and things you hate, but at least you’re here.
The other day, we were talking about our upcoming American summer with a Mauritanian friend. “Will you go back to your old house?” he asked. We shrugged. We sold it when we moved here—figured it would be WAY too much hassle to have to worry about renters, leaky roofs, backed-up toilets, etc from half a world away.
“We have that idea,” he told us. “We call it atlal and it’s very important in our culture. There’s a lot of poetry written about it.” He went on to describe a nomad passing by an oasis where he spent time several years previously. Maybe a bit of his old fence is left, uneaten by animals, and he sifts through the sand to find the 3 stones on which he balanced his cooking pots over the flames and the ashes of an old fire. This is good. He sits there in the sand, enjoying the evening breeze on his face, thinking of the past. Maybe he makes a pot of tea, balancing his pot on those same stones, remembering. Bouka atlal—tears on the place where you had a good time.
It is actually painful for me to visit our old house. I lived there the longest I have lived in any single house—6 years. It is where my children were babies. It is an older house for America, and it had issues, but also ancient, fragrant roses, original hardwood floors, the biggest camilla bush I have ever seen—it was more like a tree. The morning light through the windows was beautiful. Leaving it was difficult. But now others live there, have filled the garden with new plants, built a different fence, made new memories.
Unlike the Mauritanians, we say, “You can’t go home again.” “You can’t step in the same river twice.” We don’t even try. We, as a people, tend to look forward. We glorify youth, and want always the latest things. We move on. Seek closure. It’s over now.
Going back to a familiar place after several years away is strange. Memory has shifted, solidified, and the layers are no longer discernible, so that I may remember things—not as they were when I left them—but as they were several years before that. Does it have more to do with building those layers, with seeing a particular building on a particular corner over and over again until it is fixed in the mind? So that if a building was changed only a few months before I left, I won’t remember that. Chronology can also be abstract.
I have started packing. We leave tomorrow night; our flight takes off (insha’allah) at 3 a.m. After traveling about 31+ hours, we’ll arrive at my in-laws in Southern Calif. We’ll go to bed around midnight their time; 7 a.m. for our body clocks. A few hours later we’ll get up, dazed and groggy, and have to speak for 30 min to a small group that my in-laws arranged. Happy Father’s Day Donn! I’m planning on giving him a nap, and maybe some Thai food later on.
Some time ago, I found a really fun site called “5 Minutes for Mom.” It’s run by real-life twins who are both mothers and both techies. They offer a site where you can go with technological questions, a place to find other blogs sorted by basic type, and other services. I wrote them a question and they not only answered it really quickly, but also offered to interview me and post a link to my blog. A couple of months later, I managed to actually fill in their questionnaire. (They were very patient with me.) Anyway, you can read the interview here, and I encourage you to check out their site and feel free to ask them your blogging questions—they are very kind and helpful.
I won’t be online much in the next few months, although I hope to keep blogging, albeit sporadically. Leaving before any kind of trip is always hectic, but international travel adds a whole new level. We’re leaving our house for 3 months; we need to pack, prepare, say good-byes, etc. In Mauritanian culture, you are supposed to visit people who are about to travel, which usually means that just when you are at absolute panic level and throwing things at random into suitcases, people drop by and you have to sit down, offer Cokes or tea, chat, smile outwardly while inwardly churning. Plus, there are friends who are moving away and we may never see again—they come from other regions of our vast home country—and so we need to have them over again, exchange emails and promise to keep in touch, etc.
…in fact, ironically enough, I am just back to finish this post after someone dropped in unexpectedly for a couple of hours. Now I can’t remember what I was going to say! Oh well, it was probably a boring account of my weekend—kid’s concert and end-of-year programs (I met the US Ambassador and he shook my hand right after I’d been eating Liz’s caramel corn and my hands were sticky), time at the beach (June is Jellyfish month), unexpected visitors on Saturday morning when I’m in sweats with a cup of coffee in hand and have to race upstairs and put on a skirt, unexpected visitors on Saturday evening when the kids are in pajamas after their after-beach showers and again, I’m in sweats and have to race upstairs. I have a wraparound pagne that comes in handy on these occasions.
This no doubt raises questions as to how I dress. It’s always a challenge. Here we have all extremes in the expatriate community. This isn’t Iran or Saudi Arabia—you don’t have to wear the muluffa or cover your head, and are free to dress as you like. So you see all kinds of responses, from the French women in skimpy skirts and spaghetti straps, making no concession to their host culture, to some Americans who embrace it completely. Me, I’m in the middle. I figure it’s not my culture so I should respect it, but on the other hand, it’s not my culture so I don’t have to adopt it (especially as the clothing can have certain religious connotations). This means I wear long skirts and shirts with sleeves, although mostly short sleeves, or not-too-fitted pants with longer, tunic-style shirts. As you can see, this also means I probably need to go shopping as soon as we get to the States! Darn! 🙂 Can’t wait to wear shorts and sleeveless t’s again.
One more note on my lack of blogging, both recently and in the near future: the internet has been slower-than-death (i.e. 20 minutes to open a webpage) lately OR not working at all. So we’ll see how it goes. However, happily it is NOT just our problem—it’s city-wide. So that means that we don’t have to make myriad trips to Mauritel. It is frustrating though. I’ve actually now been trying to open my blog for 6 hours (I write offline) and the page just won’t open. Grr. (final PS: hooray! It’s 12:30 a.m…yes I’m GOING to bed now…and it’s just opened!)
I recently mentioned certain Big Faceless American Companies (BFAC) I will be visiting this summer (i.e. Starbucks) vs. BFAC I won’t (McDonalds—I don’t like plastic food). Ok so I’m a bit of a snob—in the nicest possible way of course. I also realize that Starbucks is just as much a BFAC as McDonald’s, but at least I like their basic product, and I miss it.
This got me thinking about upcoming Reverse Culture Shock. I remember last time I went home—there were so many things I’d forgotten about:
Dishwashers—I’d been at my in-laws 3 days doing dishes by hand when my MIL asked me why I didn’t use the dishwasher. I’d forgotten they exist!
Free refills—a uniquely American idea.
Customer service—that was I was really happy to re-encounter. “Is everything all right folks? Can I get you anything else?” You just don’t hear that at restaurants here.
Enormous stores, their fluorescent lighted distances softly beckoning, their ACs humming no matter the actual weather outside, their nondescript floors muffling your footsteps. I remember going into Culture Shock right in Safeway, in the cereal aisle. There was just too much choice! I was paralyzed into inaction, and eventually broke down, clutched a box of Corn Flakes, and departed, softly weeping. Ok it wasn’t quite that bad, but I was a bit overwhelmed–especially at the mall. I think the fluorescent lights make it worse, somehow. I don’t know why. Here in Mauritania, we have our own special version of various stores. For example, we have Macy’s:
And of course many modern restaurants—we’re cutting-edge here, we are:
We have “Pizza Hot”:
And, my personal favorite, Nouakchott’s famous Golden Arches themselves:
This year we have also gotten a Home Depot (painted orange, appropriately enough) and a 7-11, minus the Slurpee of course. I wish our camera was working so I could show you—they have copied the logos exactly. Inside, you’ll find exactly what you find in every other store in the country—tinned tomatoes, Wheatabix and Corn Flakes, packages of dry macaroni, little cockroaches scurrying out of sight, chocolate biscuits melted together, shampoo, palm oil, potatoes, onions, batteries and long-life milk—an odd mix of everyday items.
We even have the Michelin man:
I couldn’t get the picture of the University entrance to upload so you will have to wait.
PS No I don’t know why the Michelin picture is bigger than the others. They are the same size on my computer. The thumbnails can be viewed full size if you just click on them.
The other day, Elliot and another boy were talking to a man about joining Boy Scouts next year.
Man: We like to involve everybody’s parents, because kids can benefit from knowing and working with lots of different adults.
Elliot (fervently): That’s great!
Later, Donn asked him about it.
Elliot: Well, Dad, I don’t want to hurt your feelings. This is the best way to describe it. You know in Spy Kids when Carmen says, “But my parents can’t be spies—they’re not cool enough!” That’s what I meant.
Ouch! No longer cool for the 10-year-old set! We’re crushed.
Ok I’ve never been tagged before, but Meredith (or Poop-ith as her French friends call her; see her entry for May 23 as I can’t make this link to it) has tagged me to do something called a meme. (She’s an expat American living in France, and I enjoy reading her blog…especially as it makes me homesick for France! They’re picking cherries! They’re wandering through historic cobblestone piéton areas that are so common no one even notices them but the tourists! They’re dealing with those curiously ubiquitous rude old French women at the local markets! Sigh…) She wants to know what I have in my fridge! Honestly, it’s not that exciting, as I’m still American, even though I live in Africa. I’m supposed to list 5 things in my fridge, closet, car and purse.
Hmm..my fridge. Probably the two most unusual things are bissop—a local drink made by soaking some sort of dried flowers in water and adding sugar and whatever flavorings you fancy (it’s actually really good)—and my home-made mango chutney.
We also have several small cartons of milk. Here there are 3 kinds of milk: fresh, long-life, and powdered. Powdered milk is right out! You know why; it’s just yucky. Long-life milk is milk that is boiled to approximately 1000 degrees and then sealed in a box; it will keep indefinitely on your shelf. It too is yucky. Fresh milk is always whole. It is pasteurized but not homogenized, so it has to be shaken to avoid lumps of cream. It comes in pint-size (1/2 liter) cartons, so you have to buy millions OR not drink that much milk. We have opted for the latter, so our kids are no doubt calcium-deprived (although they make up for it in cheese and yogurt). Hey, maybe that’s why they’re short? I knew it wasn’t the coffee!
2 more things? Um, eggs and butter. Told you I was boring!
As for my closet, it is similarly unexciting. Clothes, hangers, junk on the floor that needs to be cleaned up. About the most interesting thing are our Mauritanian clothes. We don’t wear these very often, but we do own several outfits; most of them gifts or bought for special occasions.
Mauritanian men wear long flowing robes called dra:ahs in Arabic or boubous in French. They are wide—when Donn puts one on, it is wider than his outstretched arms. Then he folds it onto his shoulders. Boubous are open down the sides till nearly the bottom, so underneath men wear shirts (usually button-ups) and pants. Their long hems drag through the dust.
The traditional pants, called sirwaals, are truly amazing. They are about ¾ length, and like the robe, always blue or white. Again, the waistband is wider than I can reach, even when I stretch out my arms as far as they go. I’ve always wanted to put them on and take a picture, call it “before.” The thing is, Mauritanian men are SKINNY! They have tiny little waists, unlike their women. So these pants form folds that hang between the legs, creating a unique look.
To keep these pants from falling round your ankles, you need a belt. This is called the likshah, and, again, is not something you would have come up with on your own. You tie it round your waist, and since it’s leather it creates a big knot which, thanks to the voluminous robe, doesn’t bulge too much. The ends hang down to your feet. These create a handy little “whip” and can be used for camels or recalcitrant children, as need arises.
Why use so much material? They say a Mauritanian always has his tent with him!
In our closet, there are also several howlis, or turbans—long lengths of cloth that can be wrapped around the head and face. Donn likes to dress up in the whole outfit, wrap a black turban round his face, top it off with sunglasses, and visit an American airport! It’s fun for the whole family.
I have several muluffas. These are essentially one long strip of brightly-coloured material that you wrap round yourself, covering up from head to toe. They are often made of thin material. Right now the fashion is to wear coordinating colours of long-sleeved t-shirts underneath them, and of course skirts, or dresses.
Muluffas are beautiful. They come in rainbow-colours, hand-dyed, with splotches of various colours. The White Maure women have coordinating high-heels and tiny little handbags. They sparkle with costume jewelry and their make-up is carefully done. They mince down the street, confident in the knowledge that all eyes are on them.
I have a muluffa in orange and purple, and another in blue and green. Wearing them successfully has much in common with doing a giant scarf trick. I have never been good at wearing scarves. During the evening, Mauritanian women are constantly reaching out to adjust my muluffa, or even sometimes taking me somewhere in private to start all over. It makes me feel like I’m 5 again.
My car and purse have only normal, boring things in them—sand (everything in Mauritania, including the bread, has sand in it), shells, kid junk, etc.
But why ask about such normal things? How about a meme that asks 5 Places I Will Visit this Summer that You Have Heard Of? (Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, Old Navy, Powells, Starbucks) Or 5 Places I Will Not Go This Summer if I Can Help It? (Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Disneyland—oh wait I’m going to Disneyland—well, the It’s A Small World ride at Disneyland…) Or 5 Habits of Your Children that Make You Wonder Whose Children They Really Are? I am inspired by this by the fact that Ilsa just spontaneously made me a handkerchief from a bit of old sheet edged with pink lacy stuff. It’s lovely, of course, and I’m terribly touched, but where on earth did I get a daughter who likes to SEW?
I think this would be a great meme. I tag everybody that I know (borrowing a page from thesis students) to do that! I’ll look forward to reading about it on your blog. Be sure and tell me you are doing this. I will do it too.