Friday, December 5, 2014

second floor perspective

For the past three weeks, I've been living in temporary housing back in my old neighborhood here in the center of Aix. It's nice to be back after spending the summer and first part of fall in Bouc-Bel-Air, a village outside Aix.

During my nearly two years living in centre ville, I was in a ground floor studio apartment. It had its charms, but the views were not among them, though I suppose you could call it exciting to get to watch the Germans try to back their car into the garage across the alley from my windows. And sometimes I could see a sliver of sky that lit up nicely in the morning. But mostly, I could see the wall across the street. Not exactly the stuff of inspiring vistas.

My temporary abode, though, is the epitome of inspiration. With four grand windows looking down onto street level shops and across to apartments and tiled roofs and over to the tiny place (plaza) with the empty press kiosk, the small fountain, and the grand trees, all with people passing to and fro, well, I could be mesmerized all day long. My very own reality TV show passing below my windows. Alas, life's been too busy in these three short weeks to spend much time watching TV.

In addition, it's lovely to gain a different perspective on Aix by viewing it from aloft. The streets, the windows, the roofs all look so different from this perspective. I think there's a metaphor in there somewhere, but I'll let you find it yourself.

To whet your appetite to the reality-show-that-won't-be-realized, voilà - some stills from "Slice of AixLife: Rue Jacques de la Roque."

First, the place and the businesses:


Next, some neighbors, or at least their homes:

Like me, the girl who lives behind the two windows on the bottom
left keeps the shades open a lot. I think she's a student, and she
has a big cat. I like knowing about my neighbors - but is that
stalking or just being neighborly?

The Chair-Fixer guy: I've seen him there before because this is my 'hood, after all, but I never realized he was there SO often. Almost every day. And not only does he advertise at this corner, but he also actually fixes chairs here, wetting the straw straps in the plaza's fountain.

Transport: This street connects with the busy periphery road and has a reasonable amount of its own traffic for such a narrow street.

Finally, some neighborhood night shots:

It's not the best shot, but that bright light
dot is a star I can see from my
temporary bed. It's lovely.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

honoring a mentor-friend: John Mogabgab

At Ken's Sushi with John Mogabgab during a quick, 24-hour visit to Nashville in December 2012.
I thought of John often this past summer and intended to call. I wanted to know how he and his wife, Marjorie, were doing; how his lovely elderly mother, Babs, was faring; what editorial projects he was working on; and more. And I wanted to update him on the parts of my life that don't make it into newsletters. It had been a year since my last State-side visit and keeping up well via email between in-person visits wasn't John's strong suit. So I planned to call. But a summer full of apartment-hunting, moving, travel, and work, added to the 7-hour time difference, meant I never got farther than transferring his phone numbers from my US phone into my French phone in preparation for a spontaneous chat.

The last of my biggest summer travels took me to Togo for a week in early August, then on to Abuja, Nigeria to visit a friend for a couple days, and finally to Lagos, Nigeria to visit another friend. In Abuja I'd been mostly internet-less, so I was happy to fire up my smartphone upon arrival chez my friend in Lagos and connect to their wireless internet. Once connected, Viber alerted me to new messages from my American friend Nicole who is now living in South Africa and used to work with John.

The first message, sent the day I left Togo, told me Nicole had recently learned that John was gravely ill. The second, sent the day before I received it, carried the unbelievable news that John Mogabgab was no longer residing this side of heaven. He and I would not be having the catch-up chat I'd been planning for months now.

:'-(    :'-(

Sometime in 2003-ish when I was slinging espresso at a Music Row Starbucks in Nashville and was beginning (barely beginning) to launch my freelance writing career, I discovered that several of our customers worked at the Upper Room publishing house down the street. We began talking writing when they came for their daily (or more than daily) coffee. Finally, I one day gathered up the courage to ask Steve, the publisher at the time, if I could have a formal meeting with him sometime when I wasn't on the Starbucks clock.

He readily agreed. And when I arrived for the meeting, I discovered that he'd made plans to introduce me to many of his editors. That meeting led to a long-standing relationship with and a variety of work for the Upper Room. Unfortunately, John Mogabgab, the editor of Weavings spiritual formation journal, wasn't available that day.

But no matter, because when John next came to Starbucks, he apologized in his gracious, gentle way and suggested that we meet for lunch soon. We did. And what began as a one-off networking meeting morphed into a professional mentoring relationship morphed into a life mentor-friend relationship morphed into being an almost surrogate parent for a girl who lived not-so-near her actual parents.

Thus proceeded years of regular lunches together. Sometimes John's equally exceptional wife, Marjorie, was able to join us. Sometimes not. Most often we met in the cozy book-lined dining room at Alektor Café, a café-bookstore-gift shop run by an Orthodox priest, until it closed/relocated. Afterwards our usual choice was Ken's Sushi, where lunches with John transformed me from sushi novice to sushi lover.

John has been one of my most consistent mentors during the past decade of the windy vocational path I travel, the one that finally brought me to France two years ago and is often filled with big decisions that don't readily follow worldly wisdom. With his height and girth and thick gray-white hair and beard, his physical presence is strong, yet it's tempered by a scholarly gentleness. His relationship with the Lord runs deep but never descends into spiritual platitudes. His counsel is wise and never pushy. He acknowledges the challenges and paradoxes of faith but never seems disturbed by them.

One of my favorite quirky traits of John has been his capacity to reference just the right pearl of wisdom at just the right moment from just the right saint/great thinker/religious leader. Partly I'm enamored by it because remembering quotes is not one of my talents. I always picture his head as containing a giant quote Rolodex that automatically whooshes around (with appropriate Rolodex card-flipping sound included) and falls open to the perfect bit of wisdom for whatever I'm wrestling with. Part of what was beautiful about this quirk is the way it subconsciously reminded me that the beliefs I claim didn't just spring up yesterday. Along with John and all these others that he could quote, I'm part of a long, world-wide lineage.

Courtesy of my un-talent, I can't quote most of the great things John said to me over the years, but one question--a simple one, really, yet a profound one--that occasionally pops before me again at important crossroad moments and that I hope I never forget is this: "What can you do with your whole heart?"

That's a question I hope to continually hold before the Lord, pausing in thankfulness for John's influence in my life when I do.

John, I'm sad that my impending visit to Nashville won't include another visit with you! But thank you for your gracious generosity to me and for letting God work through you to give to me. Thanks for sharing your life and thus being a marker of God's faithfulness in mine.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

carte de sejour "Compétences et Talents" - stop #3 back at the préfecture in Marseille

The little line outside the préfecture when I arrived.
I'm back with an up-to-the-minute report for my most dedicated reader(s) and more specifically for anyone who stumbles over here desperate for information on how to apply for this crazy visa. The rest of you should glance at the photos and then pick out your favorite country from the archived posts. :-)

Two weeks after my previous attempt to submit a dossier for consideration for the Skills and Talents visa, I returned to the préfecture in Marseille again today. This time my dossier included a budget for my project, plus a couple other little added documents that will hopefully support my case.

Given my experience with wait times two weeks ago, I arrived later this time, at 8:45 am. I had passed through the first windows (see previous post), collected my numbered ticket, and proceeded to the waiting room upstairs by 8:54 am. (Nothing like being precise, non?)

Around 10 am my number flashed on the big screen. Funny story, though - in the intervening hour, I
busied myself by adding a couple last minute touches to my dossier and taking photos of it, in order to have a good record of what I'd submitted. I also worked at figuring out the order of the seemingly random numbers popping up on the screen. I thought I'd sorted out which numbers were being called to which windows (it seems that each window deals with a certain type of visa issue, and you're put in the queue for the appropriate window), so I wasn't being as vigilant in watching for my number because I thought my number was still a couple numbers away. Suddenly, a woman sitting a bit behind me says to me, "That's your number, isn't it?" At first I said
Waiting upstairs for my number to appear on
the big French flag-colored screen.
no, because I thought I had the system figured out. Then I realized she was right and thanked her for her helpfulness as I got up. And then I realized that the fact she knew it was my number, and she wasn't even sitting directly behind me, meant she'd been watching me! Still, nice of her to help me out. (Glad I didn't happen to be fumbling around with any top secret documents or anything! - which I normally do all the time, mind you ;-) )

From this point forward, everything went very smoothly. I was called to the window next to the one I'd been at two weeks earlier. And the man at this window remembered me, even though I'd been his colleague's client. (She'd asked him a couple questions about whether my proof of residence was sufficient, etc.) He asked what I'd been told I needed to add and then verified that the budget was there and looked good. He flipped through the dossier, but didn't look at it too closely, and proceeded to log it in their system. He told me it normally takes 5-6 months to get an answer and that I'll be notified by email or mail (in hindsight I'm not sure whether he said "courriel" or "courrier").

He then gave me a récépissée that extends my existing visa for three months from today's date but noted that I would probably need to have it extended again (at the sous-préfecture in Aix) as it's unlikely I'll have an answer on the new visa by January 9. However, I'm going home for the holidays, and I told him I won't be in France when the récépissée expires. He told me that this is no problem, that since I'm an American, I can just enter France as a normal tourist or whatever and then go to the sous-préfecture and explain that I was away and need a renewal now. This sounds good in theory, but I have trouble believing it would all be so easy, so I plan to check at the sous-préfecture to verify before I leave France. In hindsight, if I had known my dossier would definitely be accepted, I might have been better off to wait until closer to the October 31 expiration date of my original visa to submit my dossier. That way the extension would have been valid until later in January. But that would have been a gamble too.

Anyway, that's how things played out. This man, like his colleague two weeks earlier, was very nice and made a semi-intimidating situation (anything to do with visas is nerve-wracking!) much more comfortable. I was finished with everything by about 10:10 am, so it took less than 1.5 hours from arrival to departure.

A couple other notes:
* If my bid for the visa is successful, I'll try to post a list of what I included in my dossier. For now, I won't go to the trouble of doing that.
* The first time I went to the préfecture, the woman asked me about office space or whether I will be working from home. Office space seemed important, something that's been verified by others here as I've told them about my process. So in the most recent iteration of my dossier, I included information about a new office sharing endeavor that's opened here in Aix recently and that I plan to make use of. I also included receipts from the office space I rented a few days a month this summer to try out having occasional work space outside my home.
* I did not include bank statements or any record of my personal financial status; I simply included a description of how my project will be financed and a budget for it. They never asked for the personal records for this visa, though I had to provide them for my student visa. Since I'm not rich, I wasn't sure my personal records would bolster my case, so I didn't add them. Hopefully, this was not a faux pas!

And hopefully, there will be good news to post here in a few months!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

carte de séjour "Compétences et Talents" - stop #2: the préfecture in Marseille

Because every post looks better with pictures, I'll start with this one - after your visit to the préfecture, whether to nurse your success or your not-done-yet-ness you should check out this nearby coffeehouse/café/salon de thé: Coogee. I have no idea what the name means, but it's a really great place to wile away some hours.

Okay, on to business. Again, this little series of posts (see the label "Compétences et Talents" for the rest of the related posts) is to provide a helpful account to future seekers of a carte de séjour "compétences et talents" - if that's not you, you should go to the coffeehouse link and ignore the rest of this episode in the new tragicomic series "You Can't Buy Dossiers Like this in America."

After being counseled by one American friend that one should arrive very early at the préfecture to get a place in line before it opened and by another that she never arrives before 8 or 9 am--the préfecture opens at 8:15 am--I split the difference and arrived with a friend around 7:45 last Friday morning. A line had already formed outside the building, but it was nothing atrocious and extended only in front of the building - no wrapping around the block or anything. Now, I've also been told that this part of town seems somewhat sketchy, but again, I had no problems there. The friend who accompanied me said she's seen a fight in line (fighting over spots in line) nearly every time she's gone, but everyone behaved themselves on Friday. By the time I left the building around 10:15 am-ish, there was no line, and it looked like you could just walk right in at that point.

Once the doors opened, we eventually entered the ground floor, told a woman at the door what I was there for, and waited in a short line for the first set of windows (see photo). Once it was my turn, I told the man what kind of visa I was seeking. At first he said there were no more appointments for that until Monday, but he worked it out somehow and gave me a numbered ticket anyway.

Then we climbed to the first floor (in French terms, second floor for the Americans) where we took seats in a large waiting area. I waited a pretty long time for my turn at one of the windows. I had to watch the big screens (photo below) that flashed your number when it was your turn and told you which window to go to. What's tricky is that the numbers do not appear in chronological order at all, so you have to watch the whole time because you have no idea when your number will show up. No reading books while you wait. But don't worry, there's plenty of people-watching to do.

When my number finally flashed on the lucky game show screen (my friend and I concocted an entire game show scenario while we waited, by the way - I let you know when it reaches syndication :-) ), I was greeted by a nice woman at my window. I handed her my initial paperwork (application, etc.) and explained which visa I was there for. She asked me to describe my project - which surprised me, as I'd just expected to hand over the dossier in which the project was fully described. So, be prepared with a brief verbal explanation (in French :-) ).

She took my dossier, flipped through it, and seemed to like what she saw. At this point, I thought maybe SHE was the one making a decision about whether I would get the visa or not - I hadn't expected that (I'd expected a lot more waiting for approval or denial), but her initial actions made that seem possible. I had just been expecting to hand over the dossier, not to have someone look at it and ask me questions at this stage in the process.

Well, it turns out that the woman at the window seems to be the person who checks to make sure all the basic components of the dossier are present. In my case, while I had included a written description of the project's financing, I did not include an actual budget. So I have to add that and return. She was very nice and very apologetic that she couldn't accept the dossier yet.

However, I did learn that apparently once she accepts the dossier for consideration and registers it in the system, she/someone will print out a récépissée that day that will extend my current carte de séjour by 3-6 months during which time they will make a decision about the new carte de séjour.

So there you go, an exciting up-to-the-minute report on what I know so far about this process works!

Blurry photo of the first set of windows (on the ground floor) where you're awarded your winning lottery ticket number, aka number to determine when you get to go to the next window upstairs.

Waiting room on the next floor up, with their fancy game show boards that proclaim when you're the next contestant on "See Who Will Win a Visa Today!"

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

seeking the carte de séjour "compétences et talents" - stop #1: the sous-préfecture

I'm in the process of applying for a new visa, hoping to transition from my student visa to the "skills and talents" visa. Finding much info about the process has been difficult, and I've been pretty dependent on the Jennyphoria blog for the most complete info. However, she applied for this visa in Paris, which didn't tell me how things would work way down here in the south of France. Other info I found related the process of getting the visa through a consular office outside of France, which still left me in the dark.

So, in the interest of helping other future visa seekers living in France but not in Paris, I'm adding this little record of my experience to the internet's grand collection of helpful facts.

Here's the link to the official French info about the carte de séjour "compétences et talents." With a quick Google search, you can find the same info in English on the web sites of the French consular offices in the States.

My situation: I've been living in Aix-en-Provence for two years now studying French. So I've been here on a student visa that I first received through the French consulate in Atlanta and then renewed twice, once via the sous-préfecture in Aix and once via the student renewal office set up at CROUS on the Aix-Marseille University campus at the beginning of each school year.

So my attempt at this new visa is a visa renewal but also a change of type of visa. I've been busily preparing my dossier for the past couple weeks, mostly using the two links above to guide me in what to include in presenting my project. I'm not going to get into what my project is in this post, as for now I'm just documenting the process.

You're supposed to apply for renewal for all visas, including this one, two months before your current visa expires. I'm down to about 5.5 weeks due to traveling lots this summer and not being able to work on the dossier sooner. Here's hoping it all works out!

What I did: According to all the info I could find, I was supposed to go to the sous-prefecture in Aix for this renewal. So I showed up there this morning 30 minutes before they closed, with my dossier but without any idea how this process would work.

I entered the waiting room, took my number, and waited my turn. The room was nearly empty, so I didn't wait long. The woman at the window told me that for this visa I have to go to the préfecture in Marseille. They don't process this visa at the sous-préfecture (despite the info I'd found online). However, she looked at my current carte de séjour and gave me the application form for the new visa with a couple administrative notes filled in. She also took my fingerprints and had me sign one of the forms that is part of the carte de séjour process. So in my mind, it does seem to be that the process begins at the sous-prefecture, though I couldn't actually submit my dossier and application there. If you don't go there, I don't know how else you're supposed to get the application you need. I never found it available online anywhere.

The application includes the full list of what's need to apply, which is really nice to have finally. It's mostly all the same things listed on the website EXCEPT you have to give proof of residence, either through bills or a lease if you're living on your own or through statements from the person housing you if you're living with people.

Also, the website says you need 3 I.D. photos, but the application says you need 4. The photos normally come in fours anyway, so just plan to submit all four photos with your application in order to be on the safe side.

So, here's the list of needed documents as noted on the application form for people like me who are changing their visa category (versus this being a new visa or a renewal of this same type of visa):

1 - copy of both sides of your carte de séjour (or a passport with the visa in it and the OFII stamp plus an original birth certificate that's less than 6 months old and a notarized translation - you don't need the birth certificate if you already have a carte de séjour)

2 - photocopy of the info pages of your passport

3 - description of the project you're proposing and an explanation of how it supports the interests of France and of your home country

4 - all the documents needed to prove that you have the capacity to carry out the project

5  - photocopy of your livret de famille if you have one

6 - proof of residence

7 - four I.D. photos

So there you go. I think that's all I can tell you for now. I'll try to keep posting as I go through the process.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

i prefer broken stereotypes, but sometimes they just don't break

One of my favorite Lagos experiences: volunteering with
my friend at this Vacation Bible School.
(Note that this post's photos don't go with this story,
except that photos and story are all set in Nigeria. :-) )
So let's just start this post with the text message I sent my Lagos host after I finally boarded the flight to leave her city a couple days ago:

"Adventures! Am at the gate now. Through all security, etc. But when I arrived, there was no counter for my flight. I asked around. Was told the counter closed completely 2 hours before the flight leaves!!! Don't know how anyone is supposed to know that. Went to the Alitalia office. They finally told the closed counter to accept me after looking at me blankly for several seconds as though I would have to stay in Nigeria forever. Had to check my bag because it was too heavy to carry on. Really hope it makes it! Then had to show my passport to two other guys at the desk. And they took a photo of the info page with their iPhone. I was like what are you doing? They said they normally have to scan them but because I was late they were able to do it this way. Not sure I believe them. Then some guy guided me toward the next line. And helpfully helped me fill out the immigration form. Then started telling me that my flight was already boarding and I might not make it unless I took the fast track line. Then the phrase I was expecting by that point: what can you pay us? Thankfully I could honestly say I only had 200 naira. He asked about euros. I lied and said I had none. Then he filled in my occupation in the form. When I told him "writer" and that I don't make a lot of money, he seemed a smidge sympathetic. From there everything went fairly straight forwardly. Except the gate didn't have the flight listed and the first guy I asked said he was in the line for Frankfort not Rome. I think he was in the wrong line and I think I'm about to board the right flight now. :-) I figured this story is worth the 27 centimes it will cost me to send it. :-) thanks again for a lovely visit! Sleep well tonight!"
Moses and the Israelites!

Now here's the back story:
Unusual for me, I was really ready to leave Nigeria when the big day arrived, like counting-down-the-days ready. I didn't like feeling that way, but that didn't change feeling it. My first trip to the continent seven years ago was great. I loved it. I loved Africa, as much of it as I experienced anyway, though Uganda was my favorite. This time though, while I loved everyone I met in Togo and Nigeria and it was super great to see my friends, these places just didn't grab my heart. Maybe that's just because it was gray, rainy season the whole time. Maybe it's because my heart was elsewhere. Who knows.

But I was ready to leave.

What's VBS without music?!
The night of my flight, as my friend and I inched ahead in her car in the arrivals line that was made slower by recent security changes, my hostess assured me we were arriving at the Lagos airport in plenty of time for my flight. So when I couldn't find any counter for my flight and then was told that the counter had closed completely two hours before the flight--I arrived about 1.5 hours before--I didn't know what to do. Finally, a helpful worker told me to go to the Alitalia ticket office. I walked town a dark corridor, and expecting a ticket counter set-up behind the closed door, I opened it without knocking. And walked into what appeared to be either a meeting or a bunch of good ol' boys standing around chewing the fat in a sparse office room with only a desk or two. After they all stared at me for several seconds and then I finally blurted out my problem, the man behind the desk who seemed to have the authority--and I had learned during the preceding week that authority and proper respect for it are a big deal in Nigeria--asked what time it was. I wasn't 100% sure and said, "7:45 pm." "No," he said, "it's nearly 8 pm. The desk closed at 7:15." And then they stared at me again. Offering no solutions. By now, I was in an internal panic that I might not really get to leave Nigeria that night. 

And I was so ready to leave. 

Finally, he told me to go back to the front desk. "But they told me to come here," I said. "Go to the desk," he repeated. And then I realized maybe he was going to tell them to let me on anyway. 

Which is what happened. But then there was that bit about the guys in airport uniforms laughing as they used an iPhone to take a photo of the info page of my passport. Um, have you ever received any email scam messages from Nigeria asking for your bank account numbers in order to deposit that inheritance from that complete stranger? Yeah, me too. But there was nothing I could really do to stop them at that point, so I had to move on, while hoping my identity wasn't going be stolen before I touched down in Europe again.

Fresh off of maybe-there-will-soon-be-another-Kami-Rice-who-looks-nothing-like-me-gate, this "helpful" man came up to whisk me through immigration. I thought he was with the airline and the counter people had alerted him. But that was wishful thinking. Still, this was the first bribe I was asked for during two-weeks in West Africa, so maybe that does break stereotypes after all? 

So, anyway, I was very relieved to get on that plane. And I hate it that I was so relieved. But I was.

VBS games!!

And apparently, my body affirmed my relief by breaking out in hives by the time the plane landed to pick up more passengers in Accra, Ghana. Hives - triggered by stress. The antihistamines I took, along with arriving back in Europe, made the hives short-lived. But alas, it's now an indelible memory that trying to get out of Nigeria was so stressful it made my skin break out in red, itchy patches.

But, you know, I still might go back one day because aside from the airport-that-gave-me-hives, I met some really great people in Nigeria.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

on ebola and going to nigeria anyway

The form I had to fill out upon leaving Lomé, Togo headed for 
Abuja, Nigeria. Except no one collected it when I arrived, 
despite how official it looks. They did take my temperature though.

In a manner of speaking, this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Ebola during my international travels, so that’s partly why it hasn’t phased me too much to come to Lagos despite the news reports and despite the concerns of people who care about me (now, if I’d been slated to travel to the epicenters of Guinea, Liberia, or Sierra Leone, I would have reconsidered my plans, to be sure).

In 2007, just about two months after I left Uganda, one of the communities I visited there was hit by an Ebola outbreak. Doctors I had recently met were at the epicenter of fighting the disease. They stayed in the community to do battle while their children and coworkers were evacuated. I followed the doctors’ blog posts and prayed with them. A Ugandan doctor friend of the American doctors I spent time with—a man they had called their best friend and someone they highly respected—was one of the victims of the virus. Ebola is a disease that attacks a community’s most dedicated servants.

Thus, for me, for years now, Ebola has been more than a horrifying plot device from the movies. It’s been a real life reality that touched people and places I know. But sometimes reality actually makes a thing less scary. There are ways to contain Ebola and ways to avoid it. The challenge is a challenge of community health and education and getting people to abide by those containment measures and providing appropriate medical supplies. Reality doesn’t take away risk, but it does make clear that Ebola is something that can be fought and defeated. (Here the Doctors Myhre comment on the current Ebola outbreak.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

nigeria: first impressions

With my friend in Abuja at the tailor's shop for slight alterations.

So here I am reporting live from Lagos, Nigeria. Yep, the same Lagos that’s dominating Ebola news headlines. The virus spread here just days before I left France to work in Togo for a week followed by a week here in Nigeria.

As the headlines have shifted from Boko Haram to Ebola, so have the concerns of my friends and family regarding my travels. So far so good, though, on all fronts. The most trouble I’ve had so far has been side effects of my anti-malaria medications – prescribed by an American doctor and purchased at a pharmacy in France – which completely robbed me of my appetite, making it oh-so-much harder to enjoy jollof rice in its motherland.

As I’ve discovered in my travels the past seven years, news reports often make rather isolated incidents sound like they are much more rampant than they are. Riots rarely encompass an entire city, for example. In Nigeria at least, Ebola is so far still concentrated within the concentric circles of people who had contact with Patrick Sawyer, who it’s increasingly difficult to describe as anything other than arrogant and selfish, at least based on news reports of his blatant actions that exposed so many people needlessly.

That’s what people are talking about here. They’re also, as one must in scary times, making dark jokes, such as passing around messages that simply taking baths in salt will keep you from getting Ebola. Which is now being followed by rumors of people who’ve essentially overdosed on salt. And others who joke that they’ve suddenly entered the salt-selling business.

More authentic word on the streets says that some too-enterprising business-people are taking advantage of the situation by massively increasing the cost of hand sanitizer since everyone is encouraged to use it liberally. Apparently, it’s even hard to find it in shops now. 

In other precautionary measures, some people have stopped shaking hands with others. And a little boy at Vacation Bible School this morning prayed for the protection of God and the angels against the terrible disease (and thanked God for his protection thus far).

In Abuja with my friend (right) and the tailor (left) who made this
lovely dress for me, choosing a style that wouldn't make
 this white girl look like a poser. :-)
Other than these big news stories, Nigeria is so far a study in contrasts. My Nigerian seatmate on the flight from Lomé, Togo to Abuja noted that Nigeria has plenty of resources not to need outside assistance (or at least not so much), but corruption and mismanagement are so rampant that the country appears much poorer than it is. For example, he told me (he seemed well-informed, but I haven’t verified his facts elsewhere) that there have been no major military purchases since 1978. There’s a national defense budget, but it’s getting pocketed. 

He noted that the kidnapped schoolgirls could have been saved if the government had responded immediately—before they were hidden away—but the government didn’t respond until the public raised an outcry. The unresolved problem of Boko Haram isn’t as much inability on the part of Nigeria’s military as it is sluggishness. Nigeria has the resources to have made that story unroll differently, my seatmate said. I’ve tested out his opinions on other friends here, and they agree with his assessments. As a Porsche sped past us in Abuja one afternoon, my host there exclaimed along the lines of, “Look at that car!” Followed by (and taking me by surprise), “He must have stolen a lot of money.”

Mr. Seatmate (I never got his name because I’m not exactly here to work, just to scout and visit
friends) noted that there are changes afoot though, as regular citizens are beginning to mobilize and complain and demand changes in ways that are new in Nigeria. Under the democratically elected president, the press has also claimed freedom they haven’t had in the past. The non-government-directed media can now criticize the government without facing dire consequences. But Mr. Seatmate also noted that in many other areas it was really the last military dictator who made the most positive changes for the country.

In other observations, Nigeria’s fashion culture (and that of all of West Africa) is still alive and well. I’m a bit envious of my friends who live in a place with such a distinctive fashion culture that they can ask me to send my measurements ahead so they can have their tailor make a dress for me as a souvenir. America has little to offer that is quite so distinctive. I’ve been surprised to learn, though, that “traditional” clothes aren’t allowed in some offices every day. In government offices in Abuja, for example, Friday is the day for wearing traditional rather than suits. In my mind, most of the traditional styles (for women at least) look more regal and impressive than Western style suits. But I haven’t grown up surrounded by all the bright, exotic patterns. So maybe it’s not so special and regal looking if it’s normal to you?

These homes on the outskirts of Abuja are charming and very nice, though!
And speaking of those contrasts I mentioned earlier, it’s striking to me that a culture with such high emphasis on personal grooming and beauty and fashion seems, at least according to my personal aesthetic measuring stick, to place markedly less emphasis on the beauty of physical surroundings. Maybe it’s just a different kind of beauty, but I find buildings and their interiors here--especially in Lagos--much less charming than those I’ve encountered in lots of other places in the world, from India to Albania to France to Togo and beyond.

So there you go: some observations from a total non-expert on Nigeria. One can reflect in part in the middle of travels, but it’s usually incomplete. Impressions usually need time to roll around and be tested against other experiences before hoping for real accuracy. So we’ll see which impressions change once I’m no longer living out of a suitcase.