Ok, so I haven’t really written 512 posts about my adjustments back to my home culture. Sometimes it might feel that way, but I haven’t. No really. Go check.
Yesterday, the kids and I walked down to the little local park. It’s a charming walk, obviously well thought out, lined with trees in all shades of red and yellow and rusty orange, decorative grasses, charming sculptures of a fish, a turtle, and the Lock Ness Monster (I think) that the twins play leapfrog over, and finally, the play structure. It’s not really a park, but we call it that. Nouakchott just, within the past 6 months, got play structures and they are privately owned and cost money. They’re also mostly jumpy, ball-filled flimsy structures aimed at younger children than mine, although I certainly appreciate the idea. So we still get pretty excited about slides and monkey bars and the possibilities of playing pirate ships between two vaguely fort-like structures.
There were 2 girls already there, cute girls who looked about Ilsa’s age. Ilsa, however, does not look her age, which is 10, because she is tiny–a fairy, my friend Nancy called her the other day. It sort of fits. They ignored Ilsa because they were too busy photographing themselves on a cell phone. Soon it rang, and the blond, in jeans and Abercrombie sweatshirt, began to chat in a deeply bored tone.
It was just strange. I have no profound thoughts to offer; yes I think it’s weird to see 10 year olds with cell phones, but I view it as neutral, not a negative thing, not a sign of the End Times. I’m sure the girl’s parents worry about her safety, or want her to fit in. It’s just strange, after becoming accustomed to seeing children so proud to get my kids’ faded, holey clothes, to see a family thrilled to take a broken water heater and use it as a table.
I could see in the eyes of those two girls that they did not for a minute consider Ilsa as someone that might make a suitable friend for them. She was running around playing with Abel, whipping down the slides, capturing a pirate ship, being just generally happy, and showing it. I don’t blame them–like I said, Ilsa’s short, and people usually guess her age as 7 or 8. But in many ways she is unusually mature for her age. She is thoughtful, and looks for ways to include others and not hurt people’s feelings. If I give her a treat, she’ll save part of it for her brothers. She’s an asset when traveling, helping negotiate around unfamiliar airports, passing easily into French if necessary, carrying her own load.
The twins are in many ways not typical American 10 year olds, and one way is that they are still unabashedly enthusiastic about everyday things–I suppose because those things are not everyday for them, just like a visiting Oregonian might rave about camels walking down the Nouakchott streets.
Later in the day, we walked down to Albertsons to buy hot chocolate and marshmallows for these cool October nights. Abel still opens automatic doors with a dramatic Jedi gesture. They still shout, “LOOK! MARSHMALLOWS! LOOK! CHOCOLATE CHIPS! LOOK! THEY HAVE FRUIT LOOPS AT THIS STORE!” at the tops of their very-healthy lungs, causing me to mutter, “Every store has Fruit Loops. We’re still not going to get them.”
Ilsa, her long blonde hair flying above her fitted jean jacket, and her twin, his needs-a-haircut strawberry blonde hair flopping in his face, ran about on the way home collecting the prettiest leaves. “Mom!” shouted Ilsa. “Look at this leaf! It looks as if it were painted!” It did–the edges were burgundy, the rest flame-red. They squelched through the thin grass-covered mud and came home triumphantly with their arms full. “Look at this one Dad!”
We watched “Out of Africa” the other night for the first time in years and years. The children found it painfully boring. We enjoyed it. Africa is beautiful, and the film shows it. I was struck, however, with how clean it was. That’s not the Africa I know, and I doubt it was the Africa known by Isak Dinesen. There’s a scene where the coffee crop catches on fire and burns up. Meryl Streep goes out to watch, in despair, and a small child comes up to her and she hugs him.
I know what that child was like in real life. I know how grimy his hand was, how sandy and dirty his hair. I know what the area underneath his nose looked like, this village child raised in an era and place without disposable Kleenex and taps full of clean water throughout the house. But this child looked nothing like that; he was freshly-bathed and his clothes were simple but clean.
Ramadan ended last week. I know that the children of the tent family across from my old house appeared in new clothes the first day, freshly scrubbed with braids redone and gleaming, and that every day since they have worn the same clothes until now, a week later, they are already looking dingy and worn.
That’s why these clean, beautiful girls posing with their new cell phone just struck me as odd. Which is real? Both are, obviously. How can that be? How can one world be so diverse? Shouldn’t it really be like another planet?

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