To bring this blog up to date, I’ll just quickly summarize my weekends. Why? Because the weeks are pretty similar. Stumbling toward a complete course plan for Burundi, which I will have to devote myself to tomorrow. Beavering away on a social media strategy for the organization as well as two web portal projects– fortunately, Simon seems to think everything I do on that front is fantastic. Enjoying lunch with people who, although they are always polite and a handful of them have become real friends, are on a completely different wavelength from me, thinking about having babies and buying summer homes. Two things slightly irk me: One, many people complain about the food in the huge cafeteria meals. Little things like underdone pasta. I sort of understand why, because if you pay $15 for food you want very good food, but it strikes me as kind of impolite to complain about the enormous lunch on your plate when you are sitting across from a person who is living on a cup of yogurt, a ham sandwich and a bowl of ramen noodles every day (that’s three meals) and, if offered a scoop of that slightly chewy rice, would eat it all up in a minute. Not to mention that in East Africa right now there is a famine of epic proportion (take a look) and what we waste every day could feed families. It may sound sugary-sweet, sanctimonious and whatever, but I really feel for those people and I wish there was something practical that could be done to help. They’re PEOPLE, just like me. And from a western perspective it may sound dumb, but I really do think of the children in Somalia and feel guilty every time I waste food– which isn’t very often, because having learned firsthand last year what it felt like to go to bed hungry night after night, I’m a bit fanatical about leftovers.
The second thing that bothers me about work is the cliqueyness, based on language and department. The people who have English as a first language automatically sort of become part of an anglo group, and while that is really comforting (I’m going to see Harry Potter with members of that same crew next week) it is sometimes also odd in the cafeteria; the anglos will be loud and boisterous, a group of French-speakers will be casting side glances at the funny anglos…and when I go to talk to any of those people, I get a puzzled look from the English group.
It’s also departmental, but that is understandable. Translators don’t have that much of a reason to talk to express mail administrators, for example; the two just don’t meet. Comms people, though, are running hither and thither talking to everybody.
Bilingualism helps to get around this barrier. Consequently Simon, who is bilingual and a comms person, is extremely good at not being part of the cliques. My fellow Canuck intern, Peter, is also adept at it, to his credit.
Besides Simon, the only person on whom this clique business seems to have no effect is Claudine. I’m not even sure what department she works in, but she knows everyone and talks to everyone. She’s about my mom’s age, a French lady married to a Brit. On several occasions after lunch she’s bought me coffee and we’ve talked, mostly about international affairs and Africa– she subscribes to the same magazine, Jeune Afrique, that I love and hope to work at someday. But beyond that she’s so easy to talk to…she’s the only one to whom I’ve breathed a word about my depression, for example. On a bad day, it is nice to just run into her and hear her cheery “Comment ça va?” and know that there is someone around who likes me for me.
Over the past few weeks there have been quite a few lovely CouchSurfing picnics and bar nights, where I’ve talked with backpackers until far later than I intended. Two weeks ago I also made it to the Montreux Jazz Festival, when Pedro, a friend of Simon’s who happens to be my neighbour, invited me to come along with him and his wife. Despite the fact that Ella Fitzgerald once played here, there were no bands that convinced me to lay down money, so I just checked out the free concerts. I was rewarded with a night of dancing in the park to the sounds of the Université de Lausanne motown ensemble. I also walked further down and checked out the buskers. There was one guy who could make the most amazing bird-tweeting sounds with his mouth, a didgeridoo player accompanied by a singer-songwriter, a quiet African gentleman playing a traditional string instrument, and an American singer-songwriter group with a black lead singer who reminded me vaguely of Tracy Chapman, who concluded their set with a ripping version of “Hit the Road Jack.”
Interestingly, Russian is heard almost as often as French in the streets of Montreux and all the restaurants have expensive caviar to cater to the tastes of…oligarchs’ families, I guess.
But my enduring memory of Montreux will be the sunset. Like bright coral-coloured melting metal sinking and spreading , shining and rippling over the entire expanse of the huge, clear blue lake. I hope my feeble words have taken at least a step towards describing that fantastic scene.
That weekend was the weekend I had a bit of a row with Roger. It started when, completely out of the blue, he made a comment that suggested all Arab men locked their women up and treated them like livestock. “C’est comme ça les arabes,” he said.
I’m not going to lie, I am affected by stereotypes. I think we all are. But I try to ignore them and treat people as individuals. My reward for this approach has been dozens of friends and hundreds of colleagues and acquaintances of a rainbow of ages, colours, religions, (dis)abilities, ethnic groups and gender identites.
“Wouldn’t you dislike the Germans if a German once said something bad about your mother?” he said
I don’t see the logic in that statement. Whether someone is an asshole is not affected by their ethnic group, and just because one member of that ethnic group is an asshole (or a wife-beater, or a thief) does not mean they all are! The first French man I ever spoke to shouted at me when I asked directions in a Paris hotel. But it never even occurred to me to let that colour my perception of all French men, and a subsequent conversation I had with a totally different French man years later in Bayonne led to a week’s adventures that will remain forever imprinted on my heart.
I have no intention of my spats over the cleaning rotation with Eric affecting my perception of all Germans…fortunately for the Germans.
Roger event went as far as to suggest that Canadian immigration policy should be even more based on stereotypes than it already is. “It’s better to get rid of ten innocent people than to let one guilty person in,” he said. I know Roger would never kill anyone, but that is the same logic Rwandan extremists used to justify the genocide, and hearing those words come out of my boyfriend’s mouth almost brought me to tears.
After that I had a typical girl friend vent session over the phone with Irina and then went to watch a bunch of films with Peter and his roommate. The films- Mulholland Drive and a random Icelandic movie- were great, but the next morning at breakfast we got to talking about philosophy and his views were disturbingly close to Roger’s. He has what some might consider valid reasons–An “Arab” stole his girlfriend’s bicycle and some “Africans” beat up a member of her family for interrupting their conversation. I tried to explain my reasoning. “Africans” didn’t beat the guy up, two people did. Those two people were wrong; what they did was terrible. But is it fair to stigmatise an entire continent as a result of the actions of two stupid people ? And prevent yourself from cultivating beneficial relationships with people in the future just because they share certain characteristics with those two assholes?
That night I went out with Irina and bopped to electronica in true European style until five in the morning, losing myself in the pounding beat. When I listen to music at home it usually isn’t electronica, but I finally got it this time…it’s all about losing your troubles in the sound vortex.
The next day there was an African Dance Day at a cultural centre in Koniz (in the suburbs) and I went to check it out. People were really nice, and to my surprise and delight the featured band were the Senegalese buskers, who I know I’ve written about before on here. One of the guys let me play his djembe between sets, and I was happy as a kid in a huge toy store. I danced improvised African steps in a circle with a bunch of white women ranging in age from my own to my mother’s, and it felt amazing.
That day I also bought a ticket to Geneva for the following Saturday– I promised Salim I would go to the Lake Parade Festival. What’s the Lake Parade Festival? Well, I never really found out. The Friday before was Stella’s housewarming party. I loved every minute of it– the usual smart, open minded people that CouchSurfing attracts, both old and new acquaintances, Stella’s sunshiny energy, lots of tapas. But suffice to say, the party was a scorcher (thanks to one shit disturber who brought a strange and wonderful kind of sweet Polish vodka) and I was among those who woke up with hangovers for the ages the next morning.
When I got to Geneva Salim was cooking. Logically it was time to go to the Lake Parade, but he was taking his sweet time over the stove. I felt really ill and went to lie down, and when I woke up Mohamed had brought me tea and upset stomach tablets. I don’t know what I did to deserve such kindness; I’m still speechless.
Dinner was ready and I could only pick at it, which was a shame because it was a wonderful Senegalese yassa. But I did feel better. We went to the post-Lake Parade street party (well, Salim and I did; Mohamed had gotten a job cleaning up after the revelers and wanted to catch up on his sleep) and danced for a few hours, but around 11 or 12 (the party was to go till 4) Salim looked at me and said “I’m tired,” and I said the same thing. We went home and watched a movie…I don’t even remember what it was because I fell right asleep. The next day was an exercise in doing bugger all, sleeping late, reading, listening to music and playing with the cat with Salim, Nourdin and Mohamed. Salim and I did shake ourselves out of our stupor to go for a walk by the lake and get ice cream, but beyond that we just read and chatted and listened to music and, toward dinnertime, plunged our spoons into a big plate of leftover yassa, which makes my mouth water just thinking about it.
OK, it is nearly 2 a.m. on a weeknight here in the present. So the account of why I got up this morning soaking wet and smelling like smoke, dirt and roasted meat will have to wait.
To be continued…