Umbrellas and Rain

It rained yesterday.

Teeny tiny drops of rain that turned into some steady streaks for a couple of hours and then ended, not even enough to let the dust and sand settle. The smell of the dust was in the air later when I walked out, along with tiny pools and streams of rain water that had yet to dissipate into the ground.

When I was growing up in Nouadhibou, rain was a big deal, mainly because it occurred so rarely. Although, to be fair, we did have some heavy rain a few times during the 14 years, which had flooded our backyard, our school, and our town overall, unequipped for such large and sudden amount of water. So when it did rain, school was out of question, and my sister and I hurried outside in our garden to play with the unsteady drops of rain, and most importantly to give a little taste to our rainbow-colored umbrellas of what they were actually made for.

I don’t know why my parents bought us those big colorful umbrellas during our first and last visit to Korea. We may have insisted, but that had rarely been an effective strategy for our parents after all. Maybe they thought it would be funny to see us twirl around under the rare rain. Maybe they felt a little sorry for us for not experiencing the full extent of seasons. Whatever the reason may have been, we loved those umbrellas. Sure, looking back, they must have looked god-awful. But back then, they were so big, so colorful, and so special. They even had little tags where you could write down your school and your name, and we did, although we knew they would never leave our front door.

Alas, unsurprisingly, our umbrellas never came to quite fulfill their purpose in life. But they died serving us well for other purposes, sacrificing themselves for our tent-building endeavors alongside their faithful companions, chairs and blankets.

I now hate rain, obviously – you have much more meaningless concerns once you grow up, such as having your shoes, socks and clothes all wet, not bumping into other people’s wet umbrellas and raincoats, and avoiding puddles of water. But once every now and then, especially as I was sitting in my room, watching the feeble rain hit the sand and listening to the constant and regular sound of water landing on can roofs, I remember the two little girls laughing and dancing around barefoot with their umbrellas, to whom staying dry was the least of their concerns.

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What to expect when you’re not expecting

What to expect when you’re not expecting.

I think this was the title of a movie -rather a disaster I hear- starring Cameron Diaz and Elizabeth Banks. Although I am in no way of ‘expecting’ as the movie indicated,  I do think it serves as a perfect subtitle to my trip to Dakar.

What was I expecting indeed? Getting lost from the airport to my airbnb place. Not being able to step one foot outside the door without being called ‘Chinois!’ or ‘Amigo!’ or ‘Ching-Chong’, like my 14 years of living in Nouadhibou had taught me, yet never accustomed me to. Being utterly unaware of how to find my way in town. So many concerns and anxieties, besides the main question ‘Does my research question actually make sense IRL?’.

What I was not expecting however is the wave of familiarity and memories that overcame me when I saw the little bit of the city from the plane. The lack of skyscrapers, the overwhelming presence of neutral toned colors – sand, tranquility, monotony – the flat houses invading one another on narrow streets, the occasional minarets, the vast parcels of destitute lands, and the multitude of cars – everything that I had forgotten, that time had tucked away in the further corners of my box of memories, came back. Granted, Dakar was not my hometown per se, it is actually a much more developed version of good old Nouadhibou (especially 20 years ago), but it didn’t matter. I could still recognize bits of my childhood in this West African capital.

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View of Dakar from the plane.

Once in the city, I realized memories come in other forms than visual ones. It was not just the sight of ’boutiques’ that seem to have just popped out of nowhere from pieces of metal. It was more than the frequent horses (donkeys in Nouadhibou) dragging the carriages. It’s as if all my senses had been awoken by this trip back ‘home’.

It’s the heat of the scorching sun on your skin and in your eyes. It’s the smell and taste of the exhaust fumes from the run-down vehicles that constantly tingle the back of your throat (whoever thinks Africa is the land of pure air and nature blah blah has never been to African capitals). It’s the sound of the clip-clops from the horse carriages. It’s the sound of the distant, yet awfully close, call to prayers five times a day. It’s the tingle of the sand on your feet, it’s the struggle of trying to walk in that sand everywhere you go. It’s the constant thrill you get trying to cross a busy intersection, looking left and right, without the help of traffic lights – will you make it this time as well or will that car run you over? It’s that laugh and not-quite-shaking, not-quite-slapping of hands when you say something funny with your friends. It’s that smell of a mixture of piss and food gone bad from the heat and time that linger in the corner of every street.

It’s the feeling of finally being at home after all these years, something I have never been able to feel from the many instances I landed in Seoul, South Korea, the land of my passport.

Gosh, Africa (not to generalize), it’s good to be back.

 

Memoirs of a nerd (Collector of memories #4)

Nouadhibou may not have had a cinema, a shopping mall, or a public swimming pool (although, true, we had empty beaches everywhere), at least during my days. It may have had only one decent bakery and only one decent dentist. But it sure had ample opportunities to learn and read, or at least, my mom made sure we would have such opportunities.

(I realize I may often portray my mom as the typical Asian tiger mom who would obsessively find opportunities to teach her kids anything, anywhere, perhaps giving her a rather horrible image, but that is absolutely not the case. I mean, yes, sure she may have had more ‘devotion’ to her kids’ education compared to my friends’ mothers, but in no way do I mean to blame her for her efforts. I have many other things to blame her for :p Juuuuuust kidding.)

My first library was one run by the nuns at the Catholic Church, a small cabin-like facility, located in the corner of the playground of the kindergarten run by the same church. I would start off with books from ‘Bibliothèque Rose’, which were small books in pink cover, for children, including adventures of Oui-Oui, ‘Le Club des Cinq’, a series about five kids solving mysteries, or my personal favorite, Fantômette, an ordinary girl who would disguise into a mystery-solving genius with a cape. (I’ve always had an affinity for classic mysteries, which continue to this day with Agatha Christie.)

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After a certain age, it was time to ‘graduate’ from the Pink collection and join the grown-ups with ‘Bibliothèque Verte’, with Alice, the young blond girl who, again, what do you know, would… solve mysteries with her two best friends, or Les Six Compagnons, basically another version of the Club des Cinq, with a dog.

I distinctly remember reading this one :)

I distinctly remember reading this one 🙂

I had completely forgotten about Michel, another adventure/mystery hero.

I had completely forgotten about Michel, another adventure/mystery hero.

Being a little bit more grown up also meant reading classics, like Jules Verne.

Being a little bit more grown up also meant reading classics, like Jules Verne.

The Catholic library was nice, but then, by the time I was in 3rd grade, came something bigger and nicer, l’Alliance Franco-Mauritanienne, also known as AFM. The AFM was much bigger, with more books, and organized diverse activities for kids.

I still remember when I made my library card there.

I had to specify whether I was in Primary or Secondary Education, and I was not sure whether 3rd grade (CE2) should still be considered as ‘primary school’, because, come on, it was so much more than 1st and 2nd grade. I was not a kid anymore. 8 years old! That was a whole year after 7 years old, and even two years after 6 years old! As I was hesitating, M. le Directeur laughed at me and crushing my grown-up dream, made it clear I was still in ‘primary school’.

Psssh, what did he know? But, he was still the director of the Alliance, and I had to do as told, although clearly, he had no idea of how grown-up I already was.  

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Seeing the date, I can’t believe I used this picture until I left NDB.

I also remember the first books we borrowed, my sister and I. It was two huge books of fairy tales, from the Grimm brothers, Charles Perrault and Andersen. They did seem huge indeed back then, the biggest and thickest books we had seen so far, and I would know, being 8 years old, and already having ample experience in book-borrowing and book-reading. But I have a feeling they won’t look too big if I saw them now. What a delight it had been, reading about Riquet à la Houppe, Barbe Bleue, Peau d’Ane, and so on.

The other perks of the AFM included magazine for children and young adults, which you would get every week or every month. These magazines were almost impossible to be subscribed to individually if you were living in Nouadhibou back then (difficulty in shipping, in payment, etc). Gosh, how much we LOVED ‘Le Journal de Mickey’, or ‘Picsou Magazine’. We enjoyed them so much that after much begging and much negotiation, we actually managed to have one yearly subscription to Le Journal de Mickey, after we came to Korea. Yes, that means my sister and I were both university students by then, when these magazines are clearly destined for elementary school children. I’m not even embarrassed or ashamed to admit, that’s how much I like them. If I were going to France, even now, I definitely would buy one issue of each.

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Another, more exciting, feature introduced by the AFM was the Thursday afternoon movie time. Weekends in Mauritania used to begin Thursday afternoon and end Friday night, Mauritania being an Islamic country, and so Thursday afternoon was always an exciting moment. To this day, there is something about Thursday afternoons and evenings I just love. They equal free time and fun, sometimes more than Friday nights.

It was during those Thursday movie afternoons that I discovered my beloved childhood hero, Tintin.

(Great opening theme, by the way)

My first Tintin movie was ‘Les 7 Boules de Cristal’ and boy was it scary! I can also do a very good, may I say, imitation of the Japanese/Chinese characters in ‘Le Lotus Bleu’. 😉

Despite the awesomeness that is Tintin, the one movie that pops to my head when I think about those afternoons is Mary Poppins. Not because it was a great movie (although it is) or I was mesmerized by the English nanny of all times, but because I missed the ending every time they showed it. It is a pretty long movie, for those who know, and my dad being even more impatient then than he is now, it was impossible to make him wait 40 minutes more in his big Toyota truck outside the AFM. The fifth time I caught it was at a hotel in Senegal, but of course, we had to do all the touristy stuff, so there was no way I could stay in the room to finally see what happens in the end, after all the laughing-floating magic and chimney singing. I eventually got to see the end, a long time afterwards, but Mary Poppins to this day dwells as ‘the movie I never got to finish’.

The AFM also offered me the only opportunities of any competition of any sort during my childhood and my teenage years. The T-shirt underneath is the first prize I won at one of their contests. As indicated, it was organized in the anniversary of Jean de La Fontaine, one of the greatest and most respected writers in French literature, especially for children and young adults. The competition in question was for elementary school students, one in poetry and one in drawing, and my sister and I both submitted in both categories. My poem was about the swing set we had had in the garden of our old house, and probably something cheesy about how my swing took me high up in the sky to reach my dream or something… Yes, I know, not my proudest writing piece, but I dare presume I thought quite highly of myself then, and I’m pretty sure I was secretly convinced I would win. So I was obviously pretty disappointed to see it hadn’t made it to the poetry category… losing to my sister… *sigh* Ah, the disgrace. The drawing of myself on the swing with the blue sky in the background made it, however, to the drawing category (hence the T-shirt), but I’m positive they only gave me the first prize in drawing out of pity because my little sister won in poetry (which, clearly, mattered more). Ah well, it wasn’t like they had dozens of contenders anyways.

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Yup, this remains nicely folded in my box of memories.

The third haven to nourish my nerdiness was the English Center of NDB (or should I say ‘English Centre’?). It first opened its doors when I started first grade, and certainly, it was a great occasion to learn two languages at a time (thought my mom)! The center was located at about 15 minutes from home (everything is basically located 15 minutes from anywhere in NDB…) and I can distinctly list all the books I used in order, during the 11 years I spent studying there. We had classes twice a week, for an hour and a half, and this is why I don’t get it how Koreans struggle so much with this language, when they have so much more at their disposal than I had (number of hours, teachers, materials, etc). 

My first book was Stepping Stones, which had three levels, then I went on with a yellow book called ‘World Class’ (which, to this day, is the hardest book I’ve studied with, somehow…), and after a short time with ‘Streamlines’, we had the ‘Headway’ series. Finally, we ended with ‘Business English’… simply because they couldn’t make a class for just my sister and I, who were basically the only young students at the center. So we would learn about business English, writing cover letters and pretending to make business calls, with other students who were CEOs and company directors. Thinking back, they were so nice with us, I just can’t imagine the equivalent happening with two kids and Korean ahjussis.

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I remember this teddy bear!
(And yes, I know, there’s a mistake)

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Ah… learning colors and location prepositions…

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The English Center had a wave of new teachers coming and old teachers leaving during the years we frequented the place. I’ve had some of the best teachers there, and I think that is mainly why for the longest time, my dream had been to become an English teacher.

With a school constantly shrinking in size (I don’t think I ever had more than 15 students in one class in elementary school, definitely not more than 10 in middle school, and by the time I was in high school, I was one of the two students in my 10th grade class), the quality time, knowledge, teachers, and self-esteem that came along with these places of learning and fun (yes, you saw it right, I just associated ‘learning’ with ‘fun’. That shouldn’t be a surprise anymore, though) have been instrumental in my early years. I’m glad I’ve allowed myself the leap back into this past.