Sunday, September 29, 2013

who doesn't want to claim Chimamanda Adichie as a kindred spirit?

This TED Talk by the eloquent Chimamanda Adichie speaks perfectly to why I'm preparing for and pursuing the story-telling vision I'm aiming for.

Chimamanda on the danger of a single story:

It's worth every minute of its 19 minutes.

I read Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun in the months leading up to my 2007 travels in several countries in Africa and loved it. Such a good story and so well-written.

As a side note, I think this book was my first introduction to jollof rice. After reading about it, I was so curious about what it was and tasted like. So I was beyond excited when I got to eat it in Ghana, the first stop of my African sojourn and the only West African country I visited. That's the beauty of literature: introducing us to things a world away from our regular lives. And then it's the beauty of travel to actually get to discover the real-life version represented on the pages. Both experiences were richer for being paired with each other.

Yet, whenever we read or travel, if we're too beholden to stereotypes, believing them to be the only version of life in a place, we'll be unlikely to see a place and a people in their fullness.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

culture shock. or not

True confession: This is my French toilet. It is not
 in a gas station. Alas, I had no American ones
on hand for illustration. Who takes
pictures of toilets?
It was a gas station bathroom. One not remarkable in any way except that it was relievingly clean, as "les toilettes" at the big trucker-targeting interstate-highway gas station complexes tend to be--cleaner, at least, than the kind around back that must be entered with keys attached to three-foot-long boards marked "Women" in black magic marker. I was making my first little solo road trip in months, maybe a year, even, and enjoying the chance to be alone in a car on the open road during a summer trip back to the U.S.

The bathroom was small-ish as such bathrooms go, with only about three stalls. I exited to the sink ahead of the other woman who had entered the bathroom. But she had reached the hand-washing stage of things beside me by the time I was waving my hands under the magic sensor to acquire a paper towel. What emerged surprised me: only about three inches of stingy dispensing. As I waved a second time, so I could dry my other hand, she was receiving her first ration.

And then suddenly I realized I could comment aloud about the slightly comical allotment. So I did. She smiled and agreed that these were the smallest paper towels in the world (or maybe it was something slightly less hyperbolic but just as friendly).

And it was in that little highway bathroom somewhere in Tennessee that I realized how the past year, and especially the six months since my two-week run State-side for Christmas, had retrained me: I've stopped talking to strangers.

My brain still doesn't work fast enough in French to succeed well in those spontaneous life moments in which two unknown-to-each-other people exchange their humanity for a few seconds. And outside of France--say, in the realm of international flights--I now wonder how you can ever know which language to try first when speaking to someone you don't know. Really, you can't tell by looking at most people what language they speak. And with one and 1/4 languages now at my disposal, I'm paralyzed by the possibility of choice.

This thing that in my former life had always been a certainty--speak in English and they will understand--is no longer certain. As though I've eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, my new knowledge has left me tongue-tied. The world is no longer simple and innocent.

I hadn't realized how silent I've become until I was confronted by it in that truck-stop loo. It was strange and sobering and exciting all at once to discover how my new cultural milieu has changed me. I tend to dance between cultures quite easily, feeling at home in lots of places in this world. This is mostly a gift, though sometimes being a chameleon leaves you wondering who you really are.

So when others talk about culture shock, I can barely relate. I enter new places excited to discover how they are different and how they are similar to all the other places I know. I enter eager to understand how people transact life there, eager to interact with them on their terms. Perhaps it's that lens of wonder that keeps me from being too rattled by all that's new and different. I don't expect it to be the same. I want it to be different. I want the world's cultures to keep their endearing and sometimes-maddening quirks.

But this is the longest I've lived outside the States, so I have wondered if this culture shock thing would rear its ugly head in time to celebrate my one-year anniversary of life abroad. I expect I'll discover other effects, but for now I've just stopped talking to strangers. I suppose that's not so bad as the list of potential shocking maladies goes. And I have hope that this skill isn't lost forever. So watch out, strangers of the world, my French is improving. One day I'll learn how to say, "That's the shortest paper towel I've ever seen!"



sun sanctuary
withers into mud unafraid
holy season change

Monday, September 9, 2013

on the importance of travel

Carthage ruins, Tunisia

At the end of August, I made my first foray into North Africa, something I've been wanting to do since arriving in southern France last year and making North Africa my neighbor. Upon setting foot in Tunis, I quickly found myself falling at least half in love with Tunisia from the word go.

I hadn't been sure what to expect given the Middle Eastern/North African security warnings dominating the airways in the weeks leading up to my hop across the Mediterranean. But our Tunisian travels went off without a hitch.

Tunisia felt partly familiar and partly exotic. It was this beautiful mélange of other places I've visited or lived in and loved: India, sub-Saharan Africa, France. Yet, it had its own spice. And who's not attracted to someone who's comfortable to be around but keeps things interesting with a little fire and spirit?

By all Instagram appearances, my trip across the sea was a fun vacation. In this case, appearances are only partly correct. In reality, any travel I do is also work. But, hey, work can be fun! You see, given the line of work I'm in and the vision I have for the stories I want to tell more of, every exposure to new cultures and places is extremely valuable, whether I'm there to tell an already-assigned story or not.

I've written more articles related to Haiti and interviewed more Haitians from the U.S. than I did during my month in Haiti in 2008. But because of having spent that month in Haiti, I had a better context for everything my Haitian interviewees said to me in those later interviews. I understood their world more than I would have if I had never been to Haiti. Before I interviewed them across telephone wires, I had been in their home country, ridden in tap-taps, eaten Haitian food, and enjoyed the vibrancy of their culture. This allowed me to connect with them better, drawing out their trust. It allowed me to ask better questions. It allowed me to understand their answers through a lens that wasn't only American.

When I was in Kenya in 2007, I wrote on my blog about my visit to one of the slums outside Nairobi. I had been in Africa for 4 or 5 weeks at that point, and I had been listening attentively to everything I could in order to understand accurately what I observed. Yet, I still got something wrong. It's just a short little sentence in the middle of a blog post, and it's not even actually factually wrong. But the way I used that sentence painted an inaccurate picture, though I didn't know that until a long time later.

The offending sentence is this one: "Several of the children and babies weren't wearing underwear or diapers." I wrote it in a paragraph illustrating the needs in the slum and at a particular orphanage. A while later, well after returning to the U.S., after the images from these travels and others had had time to roll around in my brain for a while, a question emerged.

What if the reason those little kids weren't wearing underwear or diapers had nothing to do with poverty?

I ranged back over the images archived in my head. And maybe some recorded in pixels too. I began to realize that it was mostly the littlest kids running around with uncovered bottoms. The older kids usually had some sort of clothing.

I'm not sure what connected the dots for me, but I finally asked a friend who came from one of Africa's countries about it, to check out my hunch: Were those kids diaper- and underwear-less because they were still potty training? And in a community where most of life happens outdoors, it makes way more sense to let the three-year-olds run around free to go when the need hits? (How many American three-year-olds wouldn't love the same freedom?)

My hunch was confirmed. But you see, I didn't ask the question back when I wrote that blog post, because it never crossed my mind that there was any possible interpretation other than the fact that no one had money to get clothes for these poor kids.

I thought I understood, so I didn't ask.

A story is normally only as good as the questions one asks before writing it. And this is why I need to travel and learn as much as I can. Because it was traveling and observing and putting two and two together that finally prompted the question and corrected my impressions.

I'll never be able to rid my stories of all such errors, but my goal is to keep chipping away at my own and others' incorrect impressions. I want to keep being confronted by questions I never thought to ask before.

Thus, I need to travel as often and as much as I can, for the sake of the stories I will write. Work and rest are nearly inseparable in a writer's life. Any experience is fair game for one day being written up. Most of the time, that's perfectly fine. Working didn't make my Tunisian vacation any less fun. :-)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

oh, metric system, how I try to love thee

I can now admit that I was a bit smug a year ago when I packed to move to France, for what I then thought would be just one year. I was a little proud of myself for being world-wise and think-ahead enough to know it might be difficult to find my kind of measuring cups in France. You know, the kind that actually measure things by cups or portions thereof.

With my American recipes in hand, I was going to need some 1/4 cups and 2/3 cups of lovely ingredients from the local French produce markets. What a beautiful marriage it would be between U.S. standard units and metric-world items.

And so I and my measuring cups arrived to conquer France (only in a manner of speaking, mind you, and that manner is not a literal one). As I cooked my way through this part of the world last year ("cooked" is also used loosely here), I found myself regularly googling various conversion units and engaging in mathematics gymnastics every other meal. You don't want to know how many calculations it takes to make a bowl of oatmeal when you purchase the oatmeal in France where my 1/2 cup measures are nowhere to be found in the cooking directions. Determining how many grams of oats go with how many milliliters of water is the stuff of nightmares, even for those of us who actually like math. (Not to mention the fact that what that box refers to as a serving size is barely enough for a beetle to live on.)

Upon my return to lovely southern France a couple weeks ago after a six-week summer séjour (as the French would say) State-side, I'm taking some little steps to commit here. I'll be here at least another year, maybe longer (anything's possible!), and I don't want to live here transitionally for the next 20 years because I only sign up one year at a time.

Thus, came the idea of all ideas. The one that was destined to make the world a much better place. Or at least my world. The realization exploded in my brain--a brain made more agile by all those real life math problems I did last year, I bet--that I could actually go buy a milliliters measuring device! Such kitchen gadgets really aren't reserved only for those who grew up metric. In fact, when I crept into the kitchen shop--no need to draw attention to the act of treason that was about to go down--no one even asked to see my French residence permit before accepting my money. Amazing!

So watch out world. Looks like I'm really living in France now!

And don't worry, I will continue to get plenty of real life, brain-exercising mathematics application moments every time I buy anything, courtesy of earning money in dollars and spending them (painfully) in euros--euros that I'm very happy aren't pounds, the money kind or the weight kind.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

French matchmakers

[Don't lose heart! This equal opportunity post appears below in English. Brought to you by new language learners everywhere.]

~~Un jour au marché~~

Aujourd'hui au marché les fraises m'ont appellé avec leur beauté rouge. Donc j'ai arreté en face d'elles et j'ai attendu le vendeur.

"C'est deux barquettes pour 5 euros," a dit-il. Pour une barquette c'était 3 euros, selon le signe sur la table.

"Juste une," j'ai répondu. "Je ne peux pas manger deux parce que je suis seule."

"Vous êtes seule?" Ses yeux se sont éclairés. "Mon frère est seule. Voulez-vous me l'appeller?" Il a fait le signe universel pour le téléphone avec son pouce et le petit doigt proche son oreille.

J'ai souri. C'était drôle. 

J'ai fini mon achat.

Et puis l'homme m'a dit encore. "J'appelle mon frère?" Il était sérieux. 

"Non, merci," j'ai répondu. Pendant que je suis partie, j'ai imaginé la conversation: "Boujour, monsieur. Voulez-vous manger des fraises avec moi?"

C'est un vendeur astucieux: pour vendre plus de fraises, il vend son frère aussi.

~~One day at the market~~

Today at the market the strawberries called to me with their red beauty. So I stopped in front of them and waited for the vendor.

"It is two cartons for 5 euros," he told me. One carton was 3 euros, according to the sign on the table.

"Just one," I replied. "I can't eat two because it's just me."

"You are alone?" His eyes brightened. "My brother is single. Do you want me to call him?" He made the universal sign for a telephone call with his thumb and pinky near his ear. 

I smiled. It was funny. 

I finished my purchase. 

And then the man said again to me. "I call my brother?" He was serious.

"No, thank you," I replied. While I walked away, I imagined the conversation: "Hello, sir. Would you like to eat some strawberries with me?"

This salesman is quite shrewd: to sell more strawberries, he also sells his brother.