culture shock

Everybody Loves a Parade

Happy Independence Season! From Columbia’s today to France’s last week, ‘tis the season for national fêtes. On the 4th of July a few weeks ago, all across the U.S. there were probably thousands of Independence Day parades, large and small. Just a few days prior, on July 1st, our friendly Canadian neighbors experienced the same thing. (Though the Québécois may have partied a tad harder on St-Jean-Baptiste Day, the 24th of June.) And just one day earlier, on June 30th, DR-Congo also celebrated their Independence Day.

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Nerd Humor, and other Untranslatable Things

I wore this t-shirt yesterday in honor of NASA’s historic fly-by of our favorite dwarf planet. Something which I most likely would have missed in the weekly news over here if it weren’t for my super smart, scientifically-minded, space-news-following husband. I’m giving it a good try, though. Lately we’ve been settling down in the evenings for our second viewing of last year’s DVD purchase, Cosmos with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Despite watching an entertaining host and a highly-produced extravaganza of color and special effects, complete with cartoon demonstrations for the imaginatively challenged, not to mention having learned some of these things in school once upon a time… I remain utterly, hopelessly lost. The music and graphics oddly put me in the mood to visit Epcot Center, make me hungry for funnel cake, and then put me right to sleep. This science stuff might as well be fiction to me.

Not to say I’m not a nerd; I totally am. Just a capital-memorizing, building-databases-in-my-spare-time kind of a nerd, not a nerd with, you know, the slightest ability to understand algebra or astrophysics. Yet even I can find this t-shirt funny.

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Let’s Talk About Boobs

One of my three amazing sisters-in-law posted an article on Facebook recently about the lingering shame of breastfeeding in public. I agree; I think it’s a strange society indeed who uses sex to sell nearly anything, who maintains a thriving porn industry, who worships scantily-clad celebrities and models and even tries to dress like them while shopping at Walmart… yet who gasps audibly when faced with a mother breastfeeding her child in public.

I think we’ve got it backwards. We’ve oversexualized breasts to such a point that it seems dirty for a baby to actually feed from them. We don’t want to know about it, and we certainly don’t want to see it.

Apparently even doing it behind closed doors is not far enough away. An office coworker of mine Continue reading

Embarrassing Embrasses

“Embrasse” is a great example of one of those French words that means roughly the opposite of what it looks like. A false friend, in linguist lingo. You would think an embrasse is an embrace… but that’s “serrer dans ses bras,” which translates literally as “holding tight in the arms” and doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. Evidently, the French have trouble even translating the word for “hug.” They’re not so much the hugging type.

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One Person’s Trash Bag is Another’s Treasure

The garbage bin outside gets emptied once a week, almost as if we were living in a real city with real city services. I’m not sure what the trash guys do with all the bins after they load them onto a flat-bed truck and haul them away, and I don’t think I want to know. But a few hours later they return an empty, semi-clean bin to each house, and for that I’m grateful.

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Introducing Baby Seb

This story is dedicated to my cousin Megan, and her adorable new arrival. May your futures be filled with happiness, health, and all the livestock your hearts desire.

No, the ladies who called me fat the other day weren’t onto something. (Sorry to disappoint, Mom, Dad, and Grandma!) There’s a tradition around here of naming new babies after one’s boss. As a result there are lots of Congolese children running around with American names like Jeff, Eric, or Bob, instead of Swahili names like Ilunga, Mpala, or Lamba Lamba.

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Big is Beautiful

Shortly after moving here both Seb and I started dropping a lot of weight. I was playing tennis several times a week, we were both on our feet much more than before, and we were quickly being weaned of our fast-food lunch and fancy-restaurant dinner habits. Oh, and the occasional bout of exotic-bacteria-driven diarrhea didn’t hurt, either. Moving to Africa is kind of like going off to college, except here it’s the anti-freshman-15.

But then, a few months later, I stopped playing tennis. I started finding my way around the grocery store aisles in Lubumbashi, discovering where to get the best butter, cheese, and cream. I learned how to bake bread. The pounds weren’t coming off anymore, and I may have even reversed course, but… whatever. I grumbled if Seb suggested a beach vacation but otherwise kind of denied to myself it was happening. Continue reading

Gimme Gimme

Let’s face it, the Congolese are sorta known for a few unfortunate stereotypes. Petty theft, grand theft, corruption of all sorts and sizes. It wasn’t for nothing that the term “kleptocracy” was invented (or at least seriously enhanced) here. It’s not true of everybody, of course; generalizations are just that: generalized. There are tons of positive things to write about, and I often do. But I have another side of the story to tell, a story I’ve held back long enough out of respect for the many wonderful people we’ve met. Today, I wanna get down to the nitty gritty. Let’s get stereotypical.

I’m talking about a relatively harmless but highly annoying habit that many of our friends here possess. I shall call it Gimmeism, or the disease of the hand which is unable to rest in any position other than straight out, palm up. For today, I shall speak only of a few stories that have happened here on our own turf, base camp. I have many more beyond these iron gates to share in due time.

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The Return to the Road to Nowhere

My friend and I returned to the airstrip today for our second round of incredible exercise for the week, secretly hoping the women who had been working there on Tuesday wouldn’t be there any longer. They were. We decided to walk anyway, but only one lap, and after that we would walk the village road to the grocery store. While our magic exercise car followed us, of course.

The women were excited to see us, and were much more forward today. As soon as we stepped onto the tarmac two of them approached, waving. They wanted to give us a high-five, which felt pretty awesome. But then the second one said, in good English, “Give me…” which, sadly, is the way many sentences begin around here, while she searched me for something she could take. I didn’t have anything on me except my iPhone. “Give me…” she repeated, followed by something unintelligible. But it didn’t matter. I looked her directly in the eye, still smiling, then deadpanned, “No.” It came off like the joke I wanted it to, and all the ladies from the sidelines laughed. Even the asker laughed, and moved back to her side of the tarmac as we sped on. Continue reading

The Road to Nowhere

Wheels are a relatively new invention, as far as village life in Congo is concerned. Each time I have the opportunity to get on a set myself and leave base camp, maybe 2-3 times a week, I still can’t help but stare out the window at all the action outside, all the people coming and going on foot. They are a kaleidoscope of shapes and sizes, colorful clothing and big smiles. On Sundays we often skip the wheels and walk to the village market, mixing and mingling with everyone else. This is my favorite part about living in Africa, actually. People spend most of their time outdoors, interacting with their neighbors, each other, and with us. Each time we make the market trip I count at least two dozen hello’s and how are you’s. I love it.

It’s always a huge culture shock in reverse when I return home and realize how few people are out and about on foot. We have sidewalks everywhere, built expressly for this purpose, yet no one uses them! A good friend from Warsaw who used to live in Congo with us told us about the time she was walking along a perfectly nice wide sidewalk in a Dallas suburb. A nice wide sidewalk that was also empty, since this was the kind of place where people didn’t walk; they drove. She was so out of place that she got the attention of some police driving by, who pulled over to ask her if everything was all right. She said yes, I’m just getting some exercise. Still suspicious, they questioned why then wasn’t she wearing a jogging suit. Continue reading