This essay, How to Write about Africa, written by Binyavanga Wainaina and published in Granta 92 is worth a read.
This essay, How to Write about Africa, written by Binyavanga Wainaina and published in Granta 92 is worth a read.
People say home is where the heart is. But I used to say home is where you lay your head because I believed that as a traveler, I could find a sense of home no matter where I slept.
I wrote a draft of this while I was in Senegal, but held on to it. Saving it for the time when it would make the most sense to anyone else reading it. Yet reading it now, after being back in the US for three weeks, I realize that somewhere along the line, something happened to dismantle my understanding of home. Because what follows was as true for me sitting in my room in Dakar missing Greeley as it is now, lying in my own bed remembering Dar Daq.
Travel is a blessing and it is a curse. How fortunate I am to have such places to call home. I’ve discovered new ways to love where I am because of where I’ve been. Each has a piece of my heart. But with each new home I find, I leave yet another one behind. It gets harder every time. Still, I never feel like I’ve lost anything. The search for home is enriching and bewitching and I really don’t understand it. But I’ve started and I can’t stop now…
You are so far away, and it feels so long ago. As if I never had you. Days will pass and I won’t think of you. For stretches of time, I feel no pain of separation. No flash of recognition when I hear your name. As if I had forgotten you.
As if I could forget you.
I miss you. To admit it feels like defeat. I wish I could become immune to wanting you, but I know I can’t. I never knew what it meant to feel at home. The joy of watching your changing faces and loving each one. The confidence that comes from unwavering trust. To reach a hand out in darkness and feel yours close around it. The certainty of unspoken sympathy. The affinity of a smile. A kiss on my brow.
I miss when simple things were simple. You were not a rudder but a current. How much did you guide me without me ever even feeling your presence? How much did you support me while I was imagining my independence? How much will it take me to get through the day without you?
I’m guarded. Careful. I can’t meet anyone’s eyes without remembering yours. The tender way you looked at me. To them I am a stranger. And when I return to you, will I be a stranger to you as well? Will you remember the truth you saw through all of my deception? I left you, and now I wonder if I belong to anyone. Life’s sharp edges were softened by the shelter of familiarity. Where I stand alone, all is so clear and so blindingly vivid. It’s too much. It’s too much.
I had foolishly believed I could only satiate myself with the unknown, but nothing sustains like home. I have nothing to nourish my thoughts. Weak and spent, they form themselves up into cheap imitations of you in my dreams. I wake before the dawn, hands clenched, with you so far out of reach and the ghost of a sob echoing in this empty room.
I miss you. I need you. What a blessing it is to speak with you. And what a curse it is to say goodbye again and again. Like turning out a light. How is it that a word from you can unmake the carefully crafted illusion that I feel just like myself? How can my love for you, certain and strong, dissolve every ounce of my confidence in everything I once believed? Every heartbeat sings of you. Of home.
It comes and goes. Happy memories of you break like waves against my failing wall of confidence. But it is the things that I hated about you that are the ones I cling to when I cannot find solid ground. How bitterly cruel that now I can accept all of you when I cannot have you.
I told myself that I could walk alone. I convinced myself that I had no attachments, a clear mind, a sturdy heart. But what I want, all I need is something I had always denied. I want you to know that I love you. I need to let you see my weakness and to feel your strength. Just a hand on my shoulder, just a touch to remind me that I am not the only human being on earth.
I didn’t know where I kept my heart. And now I see that I never had it. You cared for it so well, and carried it with such grace that I thought it was all mine to toss around as I pleased. You kept it tethered to you when I would have let it drift away. And now I know that, just as you always have been, you always will be there, waiting for me to make my way home.
Bay Siidi (pronounced bye seedy) cries a lot. In a family of more than twenty children under the age of thirteen, his wails are infamous and distinct. He, like all the children, has a persistent cough. He is teething. He also has some separation anxiety when his mom, Amiat, isn’t around (which is fairly often- she’s got work to do), so I guess he has a lot to cry about in addition to his use of a baby’s most effective means of communication. His twelve year old sister Sokhna cares for him when Amiat heads to the fields or is working around the home. Sokhna drums, dances, and sings when he’s upset. She carries him everywhere, his chubby arms and legs wrapped around her back and a swath of fabric binds them together. They are actually inseparable. She makes him smile. All four of his teeth show and his laugh is a sweet kind of coo.
Siidi is eleven months old. His birthday was January 8,2012. He, and many other children in his village, has never seen a toubab in his life. I am a toubab. A foreigner in Senegal. I am noticeably paler than everyone else around him. And he is terrified of me. Or he was, for the first three weeks I lived with his family. He cried every time he saw me for an entire week. He buried his face in Amiat’s lap or chest and just shrieked. All the babies were apprehensive at first, but they warmed up to me more quickly. By week two, he accepted my presence provided I kept a minimum five foot distance at all times. I can’t blame the kid. Even the slightly older boys (the girls were quicker to befriend me) could only hide behind the horse cart and shout toubab! at me for weeks before they realized I had a name.
Some time near the end of my third week, sitting with his mother and I as we prepared bissap flowers to be dried and stored, he looked up at Amiat and smiled. He reserves a special smile for her. His big dark eyes turn to hers and every ounce of anxiety or discomfort vanishes from his face. He looks at her the way saints look at God in the stained glass windows of cathedrals. Such profound love, such evident adoration, such devotion. Such gratitude to behold the woman who gave him life and now gives him sustenance*. His gaze is certain and sincere and undiluted by the fear of love that we somehow develop as we age. It is mesmerizing and arresting. And I only ever caught it once.
But then he turned his head and there I was. And his four teeth remained showing, but in open mouthed curiosity- wondering how he came to behold this strange newcomer. I reached out my hand, Amiat encouraging us both, and suddenly his soft and pudgy hand was wrapped around my finger. And then he smiled. It didn’t stop time or dim the stars, but it signaled to me that maybe I could fit in eventually. I could be comfortable and feel accepted in the family. If Siidi approves, everyone else probably likes you too.
The next week, he learned to crawl. It transformed him. He laughed far more often and cried far… less consistently. All along, he only wanted to be able to get himself closer to Amiat or Sokhna when they set him down to play by himself. And when he had that ability to get himself back to where he feels secure, he became more open to attention from other family members. And from me.
In the chaos of the home, there are a lot of times when the babies (there are Jara and Baye Fall as well) just have to sit and cry until mama is able to sweep them up by the arm (which always made me cringe) and feed them or wrap them up against their backs. But by my third week, I had been playing with the other babies and knew how to get them to smile. And I figured that if Siidi was already crying, I couldn’t make it much worse. So I picked him up in a very non-Senegalese fashion (gently) and sang a lullaby about a mockingbird, which was the only one I could remember. And he missed the entire first rendition for crying so much, but by the time I had recalled most of the words for round two, he had stopped. Curiosity took over again. And again those dark, searching eyes sought to understand me.
He’s got soft hair. And he likes to lean over knees and bob on his toes half-upside down. He laughs the most stereotypical adorable baby laugh. He likes to drum, babbles a lot, and chews on everything in sight. He still wakes up at 6:15 AM every day and cries like it’s his job, but he’s become playful and fun during the day. He’s captivated everyone with his charm and good looks.
He was still wary of me in his fragile moments, but a week before I left, he was getting more confident each day. He’d even leave Sokhna’s arms for a bit to sit in my lap. And then immediately realize what he’d done and rush back to her. He buried his head in her stomach and shrieked in laughter and relief. He had a special smile for me too. It’s a mixture of disbelief and real happiness- one I’ve made myself many times in Senegal. The one you make when you aren’t sure what’s going on, but you’re pretty sure it’s a good thing.
When my stay was over and I was saying my goodbyes, everyone kept asking kañ ngay ñew? When are you coming back? I couldn’t answer- not in Wolof, not in Serer, not in French, not in English. I want to come back, and I think it’s possible I could. But in the back of my mind, I knew that never was also on the table. I might never go back. And I also knew that if I do ever make it back, it would be to some sort of change. I may never look into those big brown eyes again. Never see how the rest of those teeth grow in…
Of course I’ll just have to picture those changes in my mind’s eye for now. The family will be ecstatic when I call to check up on them. I can talk about the weather and tell them how much I miss eating couscous every day. And I’m pretty confident that a certain someone will be making himself heard in the background.
*Note: While that was a beautiful moment, I have no interest whatsoever in having my own children now. You know you were thinking about it. I’m not going to bring a human being into this insane world just so it can gaze at me adoringly for a year or two. That’s just selfish.
I’m leaving you. I know it’s only been three months, but I just can’t go on. I’m packing my things and I’m getting on a plane and I’m putting the Atlantic between between you and me. Don’t ask me why. Surely, you know. I came to you vulnerable and alone and terrified, and I trusted you. And you swept me up and I fell madly in love. I overlooked your undesirable qualities (you have terrible hygiene and you like weird food and you are cruel sometimes and you never really showed me much affection) because between the cracks in your hard facade I saw glimpses of your heart and knew it was pure and steady and golden.
You’re dangerous. I’ll admit, I found it somewhat thrilling at times. But you frighten me because you don’t follow any rules except your own. And you don’t play fair. You kick me while I’m down. Then pick me up, and laugh it off, and do it again. Holding tightly to my hand through it all. You were fascinated with me as I was with you. I saw it. But did you forget that I had feelings? Did you ever even realize you were hurting me?
You’re a control freak. You made me change the way I dressed. You told me when to eat and what to eat and how much. I had to ask permission to do simple tasks like laundry and grocery shopping. We could only go places when it was convenient for you, and we did it on your own time. And you crammed me into one of your crappy cars and I know you’ll never install air conditioning, but you never even rolled the windows down. (And why did you spend so much time polishing the windshields? Your priorities should have been the doors that only open from the outside and the parts of the floor that have rusted to holes. Those are not cars. They’re death traps.)
You took my body and spirit and you ground me down into dust. You kicked me up into a cloud and I lost myself. You put so much pressure on me to be something else. You turned me to glass and molded me into a version of myself I hardly recognized. And I accepted it because I believed you had good intentions. Then you broke me. You brought me to my knees and you threw so many curves and when you did give me comfort you never gave enough. You dragged me down and showed me indifference and horror and isolation. And I just shattered.
I knew that being with you meant putting my heart on the line, but I didn’t think you could break it. You knew all along that we couldn’t last, but you let me believe that somehow we’d float along in the honeymoon phase forever. You showed me what life was worth living for. Now, the only thing for me is to get away, put myself back together as well as anyone could, and try to find a way to understand why you did what you did to me.
I’ll look back fondly on our beautiful times together- and there were so many. I’ll grow from those that I cannot forget, though I’ve tried. I will miss you, but I cannot stay any longer….
I know it’s only been three months, and we knew from the beginning that it would never last, but I’m not ready to let go. I feel no shame or regret in telling you that I’ve fallen harder than I though possible. I am in love with you.
I love your shadows- the dark places in your soul you try to hide from me. Where you keep your gems and demons. The source of your mysterious power over me.
I love the lights in your eyes. Tender like stars, reassuring like a lamp in the night, warm like the sun on my face. The things that make my breath catch in my throat. The things that make my heart race.
I love your laughter. It’s infectious, unceasing, rhythmic. Soothing and silly and so so sweet. It’s like adding flowers to a charred landscape, like showing me the world through a kaleidoscope.
We can make it work. The distance, the time change, the cultural barriers mean nothing. We can talk on the weekends. I know you eat dinner at 8 every night, I’ll call just before then. I’m going to frame the pictures I took of us: out in the country, under the Milky Way, on the beach at sunset. I’m going to look fondly on those beautiful moments, and I’ll make copies for you as well.
It’ll be hard to be so far away, but with the distance comes a hidden blessing. A lot of the things that were hard to deal with (your personal hygiene could improve and you eat too much sugar and you need to practice empathizing and you have some trouble showing affection) don’t matter any more. I can live with them, and accept them. Because they are a part of the incredible force of nature that is you.
So, Senegal, if you’re willing to try to make it work, I’m ready to do whatever it takes. I’ll even visit if I have the money and the time. Inch’allah. Isn’t that what you always say?
The sun rises, larger than life, blazing gold as it lifts itself above the horizon marked by the bizarre silhouette of baobab trees. Fields of red and white bissap wave in the gentle morning breeze. The throaty warble of a bird with twilight plumage breaks the silence of the dawn. Golden light touches the hollow stalks of sugar cane, still standing and shuddering like the turning of the pages of an old book. Waiting for a the cool metal of a scythe. And the baobabs. I could never depict in its entirety the compelling power of the baobab tree. Gnarled limbs and heavy fruits and wide squat trunks and the old, old wisdom of things that live for centuries.
The family insists that Dar Daq is much quieter than Dakar, which is true everywhere but the house. Roosters crow and donkeys bray and there’s one sheep that never shuts up and someone’s always crying. But there’s so much laughter. Everything is a joke or a game. Help is always given when needed, with a kind smile and a tender touch, or a swat and a scolding. There’s a good measure of tough love. When babies cry, they’re given a bucket or a pan to pound on and their mamas dance to the irregular beat. After dinner, a mat is spread out and the sisters and I lay out and stare at the stars and fall asleep listening to the chatter of the mamas, who continue their work peeling bissap flowers or roasting peanuts by lamplight. These night moments, when everyone is together, enjoying the cooler temperatures and the chance to relax a little, are the most precious to me.
It’s so beautiful here. Never a day goes by that I am not humbled by the beauty of the landscape and the kindness of my host family.
But it is so different. Babies are given plastic bags to play with, and their care is overseen in large part by their sisters, who are sometimes too small to be able to lift them without great effort. Little boys play with machetes and rusty machine parts and old batteries. Washing your hands in dirty water does not make them cleaner. The kids all have coughs. The mamas work longer hours than the sun. The horse has open sores, and in general the animals do not receive much tender loving care. There is no electricity or running water. Even simple things take so much work, like the six kilometers round trip it takes to find the nearest place to charge your cell phone.
How do you reconcile the dichotomy of the beauty and the difficulty of life in a Senegalese village? For me, I’ve let myself get lost in both the good and bad. Loving the lovely and hating the ugly, because the hard things never last, and underneath them is the heart of Senegal. The wisdom of the baobab, just like the Senegalese mamas, who always know more than they say they do. The everpresent laughter, competing with birdsongs for prevalence in the ear. The cohesion of the Senegalese family, the way everyone has a place and a role and even though there isn’t much, everyone has enough. You take without asking, and give without being asked. The dance step and the drum, like a heartbeat, as cliche as it may be, underlying all else. I think that I will never fully understand it here, but I really love it.
I’m not in Ndondol. I’m about three kilometers away, living with a family on their farm. The nearest village is called Dar Daq. We have no electricity or running water, but pretty good cell phone coverage courtesy of Orange.
At my house there are
no less than thirty children
four annoying roosters
innumerable chickens and chicks
a bunch of sheep and goats
I wish I could write more about the beautiful place I’m living in, but I don’t have much access to electricity or internet, so I just wanted to give a little update and write more when I can.
Come nor’easter or other more beastlier thing,
I know that you’ll weather it.
Whether or not you’re properly stocked,
I imagine you have at least enough chocolate.
I’ll be bouncing from village to village when you’re trick or treating.
But I know that some of the candy you’re eating
Will end up on your ninja costume.
And the thought of your sweet nature eases my gloom.
And come what may
I know I’ll see you soon.
is not so far away.
And when I am again seated in front of the Holy Grail,
A burrito in my lap and and eyes closed in laughter
I’ll have again what I had quested after.
Happiness is a seventy-four cent stamp and a letter in the mail.
I’m leaving for Ndondol, Senegal in about five hours. I’ll be there for about six weeks working with an NGO called AGRECOL. I have no idea what to expect, but when I know and can tell you, I will.
A toute à l’heure!
Dakar occupies a mere 82 of Senegal’s roughly 197,000 square kilometers. (That’s slightly less than the size of South Dakota.) After six weeks, I’ve scarcely seen much more of the city than the stretch of the VDN that leads from my house in Mermoz to the research center in Fann Residence where I have class. It’s a distance of two kilometers at the most. I love Dakar. But it is not Senegal. And the beauty that it does have to offer is often obscured by poverty, pollution, and the realities that exist in any urban center.
Two weeks ago, my study abroad program, MSID, took us on a four day weekend trip to Toubacouta, a village located a few kilometers north of the Gambia. It could not have been better timed. A month of sitting in class for twenty-seven hours each week, of the heat and the grime and the grind of the city was starting to wear on all fourteen Americans in my program. With as much zeal as we could muster at eight in the morning, we boarded a private bus headed south. The country opened up into a vast carpet of trees not an hour outside of the city. Senegal is so FLAT. Not a mountain or valley or even a hill to give dimension to the landscape. Instead grands palmiers stand sentinel against the brilliant white sky, defining the horizon. Small fields of cabbage and pasthèque flash intermittently between the sumptuous green of baobabs. We crossed a lazy river, salt flats. While the distance between Toubacouta and Dakar is not great, the poor road conditions meant six hours en route. Occasionally, the driver would lurch around a pothole, or another car, or a horse-drawn cart. Never a dull moment. Waly, the program director, forbid us to sleep. Though I was exhausted, I was quite content to watch the country sail by from the air conditioned comfort of the bus.
I awoke to find we had stopped on John Kennedy Avenue in Kaolack, a much smaller city than Dakar. Waly stepped out onto the street and around a corner. He returned minutes later with a cardboard box full of liquor. Cheers from the American college students. Waly looked at us at first with confusion and then amusement as he explained that our hotel had called and asked that he pick up a few things from town, and the rum was not for us. The mood was noticeably less jolly after that announcement.
Hotel Kairaba had a pool. And a bar. We got a spacious room with an air conditioner and hot water and clean beds. It was surrounded by trees, and it was quiet. The small village of Toubacouta was just a short distance down the road. We visited the village health center, and the primary caregiver explained that local NGOs and businesses often offer up their vehicles in emergencies because the poste de santé cannot afford to fix their ambulance. After studying theories of development in Dakar (and in the States) it was humbling to hear about development, or the lack thereof, from the point of view of someone who would benefit greatly from it.
Toubacouta’s budding tourism industry includes ecotourism: the Parc National du Delta du Saloum, a national park which protects a river delta, its fisheries, and a mangrove forest. It provides a refuge for many birds and fish species, as well as other animals. It was also a sanctuary for fourteen Americans desperate to escape the taxing demands of Dakar.
Mangroves make up a critical part of the ecosystem; providing fish nurseries, collecting sediment and extending coastlines, and supporting wildlife. In the region around the national park, they are constantly at risk, as local fishermen cut their roots to harvest the oysters that cling to them. We had the opportunity to participate in a local project funded by the Senegalese government. Village women and university students are paid to manage and reforest mangroves which have been damaged.
We received almost no instruction. A smiling woman offered an armful of mangrove propagules from an empty yogurt bucket and waved us off. But it’s pretty easy to plant mangroves. In fact the hardest part was walking through the warm, sticky, knee-deep mud. Shoes were simply not an option, and soon everyone gave in to the childish joy of running barefoot through the mud, planting baby mangroves and shouting Il faut bien planter! The women broke into spontaneous song every few minutes. A young Senegalese university student, who has been part of the project for three years, dragged lines in the mud with his heel to indicate where new mangroves should be placed. He also pointed out dead sprouts which were to be removed and tossed away. I asked him why we replanted in areas where there was clearly some impediment to plant growth. He explained simply that eventually the plants will flourish there, provided new mangroves are planted to replace the old.
As I deposited sprout after sprout I remembered that nearly a year ago, I was on a beach in Baja California, holding a Styrofoam box of Olive Ridleys- not ten minutes old, and watching the sun slip beneath the sea. Sea turtles lay so many eggs, that if each were to reach adulthood, the population would grow to unsupportable levels. However, this species of turtle, like the mangroves of Delta de Saloum, is threatened by human activity (in the case of turtles: harvesting of eggs for food, disturbance of nests, habitat damage) and requires assistance in order to avoid extinction. In general, hyper-fecundity is an effective survival strategy at species level, but it implies the heartbreaking reality that most of the tiny creatures released into the Pacific that night would not survive till morning, and only a few would grow up to reproduce themselves. While it feels a bit like the work of Sisyphus, we must respect that the majority of their existence is beyond our control, and if we can only work to mitigate the harm we ourselves have done, we have done all we should. To realize that you are only a tiny part of something unfathomably complex and profound is a kind of magic in and of itself.
My thoughts returned to Senegal as the sun was setting. We danced and skipped back through the grid of newly planted mangroves to the rhythm of open hands beating on the now empty containers. We rinsed entire mud pies from between our toes and the soles of our shoes in a cool and perfectly clear stream and then headed home. After dinner, the Milky Way shone briefly before a midnight storm replaced the stars with lightning. We went to bed early. It was peaceful.
The rest of our time in Toubacouta followed a similar pattern of eating, dancing, and enjoying the natural splendor of rural Senegal. And it was with sluggish reluctance that we boarded the bus late Sunday morning for the bumpy ride back to Dakar. Baobabs, men on horses, palm trees, the salt works flashed by once more. As we entered Dakar, Waly stood and addressed the group in deadpan English. Folks, welcome back to Hell. And the crush of street vendors and exhaust fumes and concrete hit like a wall. Everyone shared the unspoken desire to turn tail and rush back to the safe harbor of Toubacouta.
This week, I suffered from the growing suspicion that the unbearably uncomfortable welts on the soles of my feet were not mosquito bites. That frolicking barefoot in the mangrove forest must have held consequences. That no good deed goes unpunished. And when my friend the immunology major declared with a poorly disguised smile that I might have contracted a parasite, I was inclined to believe her. The doctor at the pharmacy half glanced at my sandaled foot and immediately prescribed antiparasitics, confirming what was obvious even to my untrained eyes: that I picked up some unwanted guests in beautiful, peaceful, magical Toubacouta. Despite its many drawbacks, I would have to seek out parasite-infested water in Dakar. I also had to walk less than five minutes down the road to receive rapid and effective treatment. Senegal is developing, and Dakar offers proof of it where it cannot offer beauty. I loved Toubacouta, and I hope to return there before I leave Senegal. But as the Eagles song laments, every form of refuge has its price.
The terrace is lit by the soft light of the sun rising behind a veil of clouds like the scales of a fish. The honk of a taxi, the clip of horses hooves ring with the clarity of the morning. Birdsongs tumble over one another wave after wave in a chaotic symphony. Such exaltation as if the glory of the day would never come again.
It’s cooler up here than in the street below. Laundry dances in the breeze from the not so distant ocean, blue-grey in the early light. A freighter drifts along the horizon, precariously skirting the edge of the earth. I expect Jason Bourne to tear through the cinematic serenity at any moment, leaping between houses. (Though anyone could come along- it would not take training or skill to navigate the small to nonexistent gaps between Mermoz rooftops.) Instead, a South African Air jumbojet thunders overhead as it makes its descent into Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport. If the buildings were but a few stories higher, they would lay in its path.
The terrace offers a place for quiet contemplation and fresh air. The feeling of isolation in the city is lessened when surrounded by the neighbors’ underwear as it dries in the afternoon sun. Big crows with white breasts call to one another from their perches in treetops, on telephone wires, and satellite dishes. Without warning, a gust of wind shears over the rooftops. The sky turns ochre and storm clouds descend from the east, roiling as they rush towards the darkening Atlantic. The owners of the underwear materialize, tear their delicates from the line, and descend once more. The sun’s last stand against the invading night is a technicolor masterpiece. Like the flashes of a dorado as it is wrenched from the sea.
The terrace is lit not by streetlights from below, but by the clouds above. They absorb the orange light from downtown and carry it with them as they coast along the peninsula. Melancholy bleats from the neighborhood sheep echo through the cool of the night. Bats rush noiselessly overhead. So close. Cheers erupt from several adjacent houses all at once. Some footballer scored, or a wrestler bested his opponent. The crying of a baby, the low voices of men in lawn chairs on the street below, the drone of traffic, the staccato of some cricket-like insect blend into a single evening aria carried by the breeze.
On clear nights, a small scattering of stars twinkle in defiance of the smog and city lights. Casseopia, Cepheus, Pegasus. Like a surprise visit from old, old friends. By some illusion, it appears as though the clouds are fixed, and the constellations are wheeling through space at an unnatural pace. Like watching a time-lapse exposure in progress. Like time travel. A few seconds pass like hours as the stars wheel overhead.
The archipelago of terraces provide respite from the tumultuous sea of city life below. Not untouched by the oppressive sound of airplanes, nor the sounds and smells carried through the heavy air, but certainly undisturbed. Everything comes to the terrace. It lacks a sense of urgency, yet it perpetually awaits some epiphany: the revelation of a sunrise, the mundanity of hanging towels and t-shirts out to dry, a sudden storm. The terrace keeps to a time out of time. It is where I go to get lost in the familiar.
Sometimes I almost forget that I’m in Senegal. So much of my daily life here is just like my life at home. I go to school and sit in air conditioned rooms, I do homework in the evenings, I check facebook, I watch tv, I read The Elegant Universe when I have time. Some days I speak English almost exclusively when I’m with the other Americans. Even things that are really different from home- like sleeping under a mosquito net, eating dinner out of a communal dish, and doing my laundry by hand- have started to feel normal. And there are things that I’ve just begun to ignore. Sights and sounds and smells that have melted into my subconscious and become white noise. But it’s a false sense of normalcy I’ve lulled myself into. There’s always something there to remind me that I’m not in Denver any more.
A cat got into my room last night. It suddenly appeared on the wall beside my head, as if it had always been attached to the window. I blinked dumbly at its tabby body as it clawed up the curtain.
Maman, il y a un chat dans le chambre, I announced, walking into the salon. She raised her eyebrows questioningly, most likely suspecting that I had mistranslated again, thinking that I actually wanted a glass of water or a chair or something. But she followed me to my room, where a feral cat had been clinging to the rideaux just moments before. Everything looked completely normal. It had vanished as swiftly and silently as it had come. I began to wonder if a living creature had just teleported itself into and out of the house. I began to worry that my maman would leave me with a wild cat hiding somewhere in my bedroom. I realized that I must have imagined it. But what seemed absolutely absurd to me was clearly within the realm of possibility for my maman. Grabbing a broom, she knelt on the bed opposite mine and swept underneath it brusquely. Sure enough, one smoke colored cat scampered past my feet as I stood in the doorway and streaked up the stairs to our terrace, where I could hear it mewling forlornly.
Merci, maman. She looked at me blankly.
Madame chat est parti?
Madame chat indeed. I laughed, relieved to know I hadn’t gone crazy, and because the cat was gone, and at her nonchalance. I wondered how many times this has happened before.
Oui maman, je peux l’entendre. Elle est sur le terrace. She didn’t even see it, but she took me at my inadequate, clumsily translated word. She closed the door to the house so that it couldn’t return, laughing at my complete bafflement. I attempted to explain why I was so stunned by the sudden apparition of a cat in my bedroom window, but in her eyes, I had clearly given an unnecessary significance to the whole affair. I have no idea what constitutes real normalcy here.
*Note: After I published this, my maman told me that she just remarked the other day that it had been a long time since she’d seen a cat in the house.