12 December 2013

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like...depression

It's great living in Congo and all, but then Thanksgiving hits and everyone either gets excited about their exotic Christmas vacation or they're going home for the holidays. Those left behind get kind of sad. Well mostly Adam gets sad.

I don't know if it makes me a pessimist or an optimist, but I've convinced myself Christmas in Kinshasa is where we need to be. We stayed in Congo last year and it was fun having our own holiday in our own house with 99% humidity outside. And Adam's mom visited so we had a little piece of home.

Going back to the States means jet lagging babies, lost routines and lots of sugar. At least this is what I repeat to myself to get pumped about staying. Oh, and it also costs about $8,000 to get all 4 of us home these days. Yeah, there's that. Adam even made me confirm that our Flying Blue accounts did not in fact have the million frequent flyer miles it would take to get us home. To compromise, I suggested he pick his favorite child and go back to the States. I'd stay here with the picked-over kid. He actually considered this scenario for a bit.

Alone in Cairo. Christmas Day 2008.

So his sadness persists. He floats in the deep end of the pool staring into the abyss while the rest of our friends drink cocktails in the shallow end and ask, "Who killed his puppy? Is he going to be okay?" In the evenings he plays Christmas carols on his guitar in the tempo of sad. And yesterday when we got home from school I said to the girls. "Hey! We missed you two today!" Then Charlotte said, "No. Papa only misses great-grandma."   

This is what it's come to.

When I see him chatting with anyone else who I know is also in a Christmas depression, I have to strategically extricate him from the conversation before he gets pulled down further into his candy cane spiral of sadness. I reminded him that Jill's parents are coming and won't that feel a little like home? No, he says, that will just make it worse. Because he'll just have to see their rosy cheeks from winter and they'll probably still smell like Christmas in Virginia or something. Who knows what he's thinking.  

He's decided that this year, it simply isn't Christmas if he's not at home. But Adam, do you remember our first Christmas abroad when we were in Cairo? Our German neighbors asked us to care for their Guinea Pig. (Because when you stay you become the James Herriott of everyone's left behind pets.) Remember how we spent Christmas Day running all over their apartment laughing and trying to catch their loose Guinea Pig? C'mon, Adam. How many people can say they spent Christmas in Cairo chasing a German's rodent? That was a good one.

Plus, Christmas in Kinshasa is amazing! We have our fake tree decorated with castoff ornaments left behind by friends who have moved away. Seriously guys, who left us the Bush administration ornament and the disembodied Santa?

We have our advent paper chain hung with care on our dead-bug, light bulb blown-out, spider-webbed chandelier. Which for Adam is just a mess of paper circles counting the days of despair.   

Fake smile.

And driving around Kinshasa to Christmas music is incredible. Last weekend someone left their Christmas mix CD in the teacher's shared car. As soon as it started playing, I went to eject because it's important for Adam to drive around this city with eyes unobstructed by tears. But we let the music play and it was the most bizarrly, surreal experience listening to Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas while dodging potholes and pedestrians. He won't admit it, but it made him happy and it was almost okay for the street kids to bang on our windows.

In fact I think, I think, the cloud might be lifting. Even though he's vowed to be sad until Christmas is over, this morning when he was staring into the abyss (his favorite focal point these days) he said he wanted to plan a Christmas eve brunch. So he will invite the hodgepodge of characters left in town and we'll play Do They Know It's Christmas?  Because wasn't that song written for expats in Africa missing the snow? Then I will slip a Valium in his mulled wine and everything will be okay.

It will either be the best happy-pill induced Christmas he's ever had or he will pass out until the 26th. There's always next year.

10 December 2013

Cheap Cream & Carved Combs

Spoiler alert:  Everyone is getting one of these as their "gift from Africa" this year:

Why, you ask, would I be giving everyone a foreign-made cheap pot of skin cream?

Because I love you.  And I'm at a loss.  Both.

Apparently, this little blue tin is a coveted member of the beauty cult classics club.  And the Hamburg version sold in Kinshasa (not to be confused with the sad petrolatum-laced Mexican version commonly available in the U.S.) is nothing short of a whipped miracle.  Or so they say.

"They" are a people like Claire - who used Nivea on one side of her face and Creme de la Mer on the other side (which I guess costs like a billion dollars) and then had her face scientifically examined.  The cheap cream won.  If that's not proof, then...well...

One time I bought shoes in Barcelona during the government-mandated sales and the saleslady told me that I had to treat my leather shoes like I would treat my skin.  She said that only Nivea would do for a new shoe massage - or daily face moisture - and gave me a half-used blue tin from her bag on the spot.  I was impressed by her accent and generosity. However, upon retelling, it's pretty gross that I unquestioningly accepted a stranger's half-used lotion.

So, when I saw the little tins with their amazing graphic design all over Kinshasa, I started buying them.  They retail for around 1000FC ($1) for the small size.  I asked Mama Vida and though she is a pure shea butter girl herself (come on, she's from Ghana), she said it's common for women in Kinshasa to use Nivea - or the even cheaper knock-off - to keep their skin gleaming.

When I was in Accra, I snagged Mama Vida an old peanut butter jar full of raw shea butter in the gift shop of my hotel.  I also brought her a couple of fancy boutique jars of fair trade stuff for fun. In Accra, shea butter is everywhere - a quality local product valued by locals and tourists alike. That's not something that happens easily in Kinshasa. I truly wish I loved the local coffee and honey, but...it's just not that great.  We buy it anyway and each time I open that sticky top I guiltily think, "This could be so amazing.  Why isn't it?"

Few of those gorgeous crafts and products you might buy at your local Ten Thousand Villages or Oxfam come from Congo. (But, some do!)  If we want to buy something fairly inexpensive and local, we head to the "Thieve's Market" to haggle for a random assortment of bottle openers, Belgian coins, and gourd shakers.  Sometimes, we try to talk a seller down on one of the expensive nkisi statues.  Like this one from the Met's collection:

No luck so far.  They want hundreds of dollars are are not willing to budge for these precious (and rumored to be fake) objects.  I usually buy kuba cloth (local, but difficult to give for several holidays in a row) or pagne (made in China) as gifts.

Authentically African? Think Again.

Alternatively, I ask Mama Vida to whip up a batch of pili pili and dole out the deliciousness in small jars I pray will not leak in my luggage.

Don't get me wrong - it is possible to find locally made products in Kinshasa.  It just takes some dedication, luck, connections, money, time and mileage.  There is a small store, Artisanat et Développement (or "the Mennonite store"), with beautiful furniture and other objects.  Occasional pop-up markets like the Fête de Noël last weekend at Symphonie des Arts, offer handmade ornaments made by Atelier Elikya and wenge wood creche scenes. When you can catch it open, College Boboto has some amazing pieces. There are generic paintings and carved wood Tintin figurines on the side of the road, but if you know where to go and who to ask, you can score unique art from Kinshasa artists such as Aicha.

Aicha and the painting that now hangs in our house.

Académie de Beaux Arts de Kinshasa is an incredible hub of art - from sign painting to sculpture.

There are talented artists everywhere. They just don't have the luxury of producing art.

I got really excited the other day when I saw a man on the side of the road selling beautiful baskets woven out of colorful recycled objects.  When I stopped to ask him about the price, he quoted me around $20 for two.  When I began to reach for my wallet, he upped the price to $40 and started reaching into the car, yelling, "Donne! Donne! Mes enfants!"  We drove away.  I felt sick.  The starving artist in his truest form.

I asked my friend Dominique about this situation.  I wanted to know if I was just being a lazy, assumptive expat or if there really isn't an easy way to support local artists in Kinshasa.  She began by saying that when she was a child (and she's really not old) the roadside open-air market called  Delvaux, which now sells furniture, was filled with fine arts.

Delvaux now.

There were paintings, carvings, and exquisitely made furniture.  Families were proud to have these products in their homes.  "It was true art, generated from the heart of the artist" she says.  Now, most crafts are produced as quickly as possible to meet the needs of the few tourists who find themselves in Kinshasa.

"Even combing your hair used to be an act of art," Dominique told me.  The combs were carved from wood and the texture made quick work of knots.  Today, there are few wooden combs.  Mass produced plastic imports are what most people use these days to tame their hair, all the while knowing that a generation ago, their mothers used first-rate products made locally with care.

Dominique says that it comes down to food.  An artist simply cannot feed his or her family.  The government does not place value on - and therefore subsidize - art.  A cheap import is always more affordable to the general population.  Most artists are selling soap or bananas at the market, she says, because this is where they can be guaranteed the francs they need to survive.

There are, of course, the stubborn and brave who persist and create despite it all.  Kinshasa isn't about haughty artisanship, it's about rough-edged DIY shit that would make a Seattle punk artist gape in awe. That scene is for a whole different post.

Despite the creative outliers, your future Christmas present will still be that ubiquitous blue tin, which might be a more authentic representation of present-day Congo than the paintings, knick-knacks, and jewelry you imagine. Nivea Creme instead of delicate hair combs. Imported goods over locally crafted products.  It's globalization's answer to survival.

8 December 2013

Weekend List!

Sarah's List:

Name that blue! Can you tell the difference between Facebook blue and Dell blue?

The Princeton class that teaches students how to be less selfish. A study in the most cost-effective giving. Check out where they unanimously chose to give.

Why millennials are so narcissistic. Is 30 really the new 18? 

But let's get back to me. Whether to put the ? or the ! first at the end of an exasperated sentence has really been bothering me lately. So I figured it out. These are my problems.

We'll never buy books over the internet and no online database will ever replace your daily newspaper. The internet is "baloney!" -Says this expert writing in Newsweek in 1995.

Old Computer (early 00s) by g4ll4is, on Flickr
Nothing good will ever come from this crazy machine.
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  g4ll4is 

If for nothing else, the internet is good for this: genius Amazon reviews

Traveling this holiday season? Here are 15 types of people you will inevitably see in the airport. Seriously teenagers, why the pajamas?

A man tweeted his feud with a fellow air-passenger. He's rude and obnoxious and way out of line. But I kind of enjoyed it because I'm pretty sure I've flown with this woman at least a dozen times.

Why did it take me so long to find this website? African Prints in Fashion. Spectacular.

Mandela in DRC, from the ANC archives.

Cape Town from the boat to Robben Island, just before baby Charlotte was born.

Jill's List:

Speaking of South Africa (and I hope we all are), can't wait to see this.  I am entranced by the original British series. Everything about these films is interesting.  Especially as my own child is seven.  Makes me wonder who he will be at 14, 21, 56.  These documentaries force you to wonder if it is really possible to truly document without interfering?

Add caption

Every time I get on a plane I wonder if I will deliver an in-flight baby.  This is true...and absurd that I think about it every time, I know.  Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie writes about such a situation in this Op-Ed.  She gets me.

Airplane on the side of the road.  Accra, Ghana.

This is an interesting blog post that provides snapshot of some of the normal weirdness of life in Kinshasa. There have been several events to bring awareness to people with disabilities this weekend. Each one filled with huge inspiration...and amusing confusion.  A friend ran an 8K and ended up pushing a stranger in a wheelchair on an unmarked course in a torrential downpour. The guy who wrote this post attended a musical event with this scene:

...and onto the finale of Off Off festival…an open music event – it was fantastic – in the street on a huge stage – with really dangerous steps.  Wheelchair users were carried up onto the stage – so scary to see. Health and Safety is definitely not a priority here! There were people everywhere dancing and connecting, and every band contained disabled or deaf people – the talent here is limitless.  

Sarah wants to forward me this article.  I know she does.

Best stocking stuffers.  I ordered some for a delivery via my mom.  She has to bring the stockings too.

Everything is along these classic lines.

No way am I watching this.  I'm still haunted by that story about the girl with a ribbon around her neck...

Frank Weston Benson, Young Girl in Profile, Wikipedia

Best cardboard Christmas tree ever.  Three years and going strong.  Get one for yourself here.

3 December 2013

5 Tips Part III. Going Home.

I've been dreading this post. I am world's worst Ex-expat. As evidenced by my awkwardness every time we go home. I'm not good with transitions. I've talked about it before and already made a list about this lesser-known culture shock. But really, I've never made the big move home. We go back to the States for a few weeks every summer. It's hard. I have no answers. I still don't know how to do it. Here's what kind of works for me.

1.  Pretend you're SCUBA diving.

You know how SCUBA divers have to surface very slowly and take decompression stops on the way back up? Do that. Take lots of decompression stops. Surface slowly. Or you'll get the bends. Otherwise known as a teary meltdown in the middle of Target when faced with too many options for cold medicine. Hypothetically speaking.

There are so many friends to see and family meals to have, but really, just pause. Breathe. Do something slow and normal and un-jarring to the system with your husband and/or children who are also on this back-and-forth adventure with you. Sitting and watching TV works. Take time off from social engagements. Plan to regroup often between shopping and hamburger dinners out. (Because this is mostly what we do in the States.)

The concept of stopping really hit us during our last visit home at one of those overstimulating/catch-up with everyone/family and friends picnics. A relative who also happens to be a European expat living in the United States said, "Listen, we'd love to have you guys over to catch-up, but we're not going to. Relax with your children instead." Ohdeargodthankyou. It's wonderful being with old friends, but take decompression stops on the way back to reality.

Slowly coming up for air.

2. You'll never really be a local again.

For some people this is a very big deal. You've felt like a stick-out, sore thumb, foreigner for a long time now. You've looked forward to going back home where you fit in and belong. But sometimes that doesn't happen. Once a 15-year-old expat, Indian kid told me, "In Congo everybody knows I'm a foreigner so I can't get a bargain. Then I go back to India, and look at me! They know I don't live there either. There's no where on this planet I'm charged local price."

I took this as a very deep and profound statement from a Third Culture Kid on the cultural complexities of his unique identity. I think he literally meant that he (or his parents more likely) couldn't get cheap video games. Either way, there may be an adjustment period before fitting in again. See Tip 1, above. Or it may never happen.

3. There are no good questions.

Lots of people will ask questions. I don't know if any of them ever lead to an honest answer. I have no idea what kind of question could. I've thought about this a lot. Even I, living this life, have zero ideas for inspiring someone to talk authentically about their experience abroad. So how was Serbia? Was it cold? Wasn't there a war there at one time or another? This is the extent of my ability to ask good questions after someone has returned.

A few visits home ago, Adam returned from one of those quick after church chit-chats and said, "Wow, that person asked some great questions. I had to really think about my answers." Really!? What were they!? What did they ask!? I was excited to be close to the holy grail of the perfect question. He couldn't remember. 5 minutes after his amazing conversation. Awesome.

Honestly, I only remember one question we've ever been asked. It's a clear winner. Adam and I arrived in Portland late one night and hopped in a cab to get to our hotel. The cab driver was unbelievably friendly and obviously, completely stoned. It was a long ride. It came up in conversation that we lived in the Congo. There was a long pause. Then he shouted, "Holy f***ing shit. You live in the Congo!? What's the craziest f***ing thing you've ever seen?" His enthusiasm overwhelmed us. We had no idea what to say to keep from disappointing him. (See Tip 4 below.) We fumbled. I don't know what we said. We probably made something up. But he didn't care. When we got to our hotel he gave us a deal on cab fare and offered us pot because he was so excited we lived in the f***ing Congo. For sure, the best response we've ever received.

4. There are no good answers.  

To use Congo as an example, here's how it usually goes when I answer questions:

Question: So how's Congo?

Bad answer: Oh it's great, we really like it. (I mean wait, it's not great. It's the poorest country and rape capital of the world. I shouldn't mislead this person.)

Worse answer: Well, it's not really that great. I mean it's great for us, but bad for locals. It's a really bad place, but we like it. (What am I saying?! That is the worst answer ever. Just stop talking.)

Question: Have you seen an Okapi?   

Bad answer: No, but I wish.

Question: Have you visited Goma?

Bad answer: No, it would be great to go.

Question: How about malaria? Ever had malaria?

Bad answer: No, sorry. Gosh I'm really striking out here...

Insightful question: Wait. Do you actually live in the Congo? Because it seems like you know nothing and have seen nothing.

Good point.

It works best to prepare a statement of 20 words or less that entertains the question-asker, authentically describes your experience and is something you can repeat with interest over and over again. Good luck.

P.S. Be sure to keep it short. At the end of the day. Nobody really cares. Really or truly cares.

5. You might not be different. Your socks might not be knocked off. 

Recently a great friend, who I've never actually met in real life, returned with her family from living abroad. Someone asked:

How are you different? Are you different now?

This is actually an awesome question. (Scratch Tip 3.) And she has a really great answer. (Scratch Tip 4. See, I told you I don't actually know anything.) She writes all about it here.

The bottom line is that you might not be different. You might not be changed. You might not be newly inspired to take care of stray kittens. This doesn't mean your experience was pointless.

When I thought about it, I don't think I'm much different either. I feel like I'm just more of an authentic version of myself. Then I read the rest of her post. Gosh darnit! That's her answer too. So here I am, still struggling to find my authentic yet interesting answer. The problem is, the longer I do this, the less I know. Wait. Maybe that's my most authentic answer. Yeah, I'll go with that.

Stealing Mama Minutia's thoughts and photos. Seriously, check out the post.

Dear readers: Please help! What tips do you have for this bizarre adjustment?

And in case you missed it: 5 Tips Part I: Before you go. 5 Tips Part II: After you get there.

2 December 2013

Monday's Lazy List

Hi friends.  The turkey made us lazy.  Or maybe it was the steamy hot weather.  

At any rate - here's your "Weekend List"!

Jill's List:

All of those lovely Holiday Wish Lists are coming up.  This, this, this and this are where I'll look for some serious fake shopping.  Oh, and I've told Johan that he can't go wrong if he follows these genius lists for wife gift ideas.  We used to do a lot of homemade stuff, but it's not exactly easy to ship from the Congo (I had to DHL a letter to the U.S. a couple of weeks ago. $180. Yup.), so I'm super happy about this whole Internet shopping thing.

Goodwill Mugs + Adorable Child Handwriting = Winning Gift  (I modified this tutorial.)

I got a great haircut in Kinshasa last weekend.  Go Rami at La Bella! (Even though you repeatedly pointed out my many grey hairs.) Maybe it was the bain d'huile or the oxblood red nails (Joanna told me to do it), but I walked out of that place feeling like a million bucks.  I was nervous about getting my locks chopped with a new stylist, but I feel like I'm channeling Alexa Chung, which is...well...awesome.

Super interesting.  What and who - exactly - does it take to make a t-shirt?  (Excited to begin reading this related book with my middle schoolers this week...)

From here.

I love this post on how progress is alive and well within even the most "downtrodden" communities. (My soapbox topic.) This article is about teachers, but I think the same lessons apply to health care! (Remember this article?)

Photo by Sarah Rich for her amazing project, EduCorps.  Read more here!

Feeling like folk?  Me too.

I've been thinking a lot about this article.  I kind of can't believe I'm saying this, but it's true:
“While American parents are pulling their kids out of tests because the results make the kids feel bad, parents in other countries are looking at the results and asking themselves how they can help their children do better.”
Of course, here's some of the other side.

Me?  I look at these pictures of aliens and think, "How does this drawing compare to that of a Finnish 7 year-old?"

Haha.  Helvetica perfume.
Retailing for $62, it comes in a bottle printed with 24-karat gold lettering and contains two ounces of water. 

We just started a sticker chart to try and adjust Elias' unfortunate habit of responding to every sentence with "NO!"  As in, "Elias, you have food on your face.  Wipe it off, please, because it looks gross."  "NO! No I don't!" (as cheesy cauliflower soup drops from his nose to the table).  But, I'm still on the fence about sticker charts.  I'm semi-holding out for some intrinsic motivation to communicate like a sane person.  What do you think?  Here's the accumulated wisdom on bribing your children.

Temper, temper.  Randomly, this hot blooded child is much more inclined of the two to eat neatly.

Sarah's List:

Nope.  Not here.  Sarah is working on various and sundry things...most important of which is installment #3 of her viral Moving Abroad series.  Read Part 1 and Part 2 while you wait.

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