Reverse culture shock is a bitch.

Right off the bat I should clarify that I do not know how long this entry is going to be, because I’m already quite surprised that I’ve managed to steal the “listening to concert archives” workstation at Nimes’ art library for this long!

Roger is coming in a week. Just in time for my first vacation of the year! He got a passport for the express purpose of coming out here. I am really, really excited to see him, hear his voice, get all the news from Montreal. But at the same time, I feel like we are on different planets, like Dieudonné or Pierre is more on my wavelength than he is. How can he– how can anyone– understand wht I saw and heard in Africa? We will see how that goes.

Just back from going to see a football match in Montpellier with a few other assistants. The Montpellier team beat Dijon 5-2, and the army of costumed, flag-waving, singing supporters across from us was at least as entertaining as the on-field action. But us out-of-towners– me and a guy from Béziers– missed the last train back. We kind of anticipated that, and he brought a sleeping bag, but I didn’t. I slept on a tile floor and it was freezing cold. The assistants who were putting us up were really nice and did the best they could, but that doesn’t change the fact I slept on a tile floor, and I’m just now starting to get warm again after a ling session of reading under the blankets, a grilled cheese sandwich, a hot shower and two cups of hot tea.

I don’t really have any money at this point. Bank fees, train tickets, the dollar-euro exchange rate and yet another pickpocket (only 20 euros this time, but still, you could live on that for a few days if you play your cards right) have combined to make my nest egg evaporate far more quickly than I thought it would. And my laptop has been officially diagnosed with a fried motherboard, which means…R.I.P., MacBook.

But there is a silver lining in every cloud– my replacement Swiss bank card finally wound its way to Salim’s place in Geneva and he wasted no time sending it on to me. It doesn’t work and Salim didn’t include the how-to-activate documentation in the envelope, but I will figure that out tomorrow when I call the bank. And a fellow assistant has offered to sell me his MacBook for one-third the store price, because he wants to buy one with a bigger hard drive. And the Mac technician has confirmed that my hard drive, with its thousands of photos, hundreds of songs, dozens of interviews, is safe. So everything is going to be all right. I just have to be patient.

I wish I was happier here. I find myself missing Burundi a lot more than I thought I would, missing Pierre, Antoine, Athanase, Emilie, Dieudonné, missing moto taxis and high fives and hugs and juicy beef brochettes under the stars, missing Dieudonné’s beautiful sparkling brown eyes, Pierre’s squeal when he gets excited, Antoine’s hugs and Médiatrice braiding my hair. it’s wonderful having hot showers, a bakery and a laundromat right there, walking home alone at 11 p.m. and not being reminded of my skin colour five times an hour. But…y a quelque chose qui MANQUE!

I don’t know what is keeping me from clicking with the other assistants. The majority of the American girls frustrate me. Clean-scrubbed wealthy white girls with their slap-on smiles, vapid small talk and thick American accents in French, whose priorities are going clubbing and hanging over the American boys like a coat hanging over a chair. One of them had never heard of the Occupy Wall Street protests, and another pronounces Montpellier ‘mont-pel-yer’ even though she did a university French degree. They make their hi-how-are-you chitchat with me, tie their mask on tighter and go find someone less odd to talk to. Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t ALL like that, but I’d say over half are. I pity the American guys. The European girls seem nice (there are not only English language assistants but a lot of Spanish ones as well as a smattering of Germans and Italians) as do most of the guys, but I haven’t really clicked with any of them yet. With the possible exception of a really sweet and ambitious Italian assistant named Giulia. The only drawback is she lives in Alès, an hour’s bus ride from Nimes. We met on CS, which probably means something…people who are on CS tend to be more open minded, more well informed and more “people people” than those who aren’t. We went to an all you can eat Chinese buffet last week in Alès and devoured ginger beef and curried fish while talking about linguistics. Her thesis is an elaborate argument for European multilingualism as opposed to the increasingly prevalent bilingualism (local language + English). I totally agree.

Returning to France from Africa has been in so many ways like entering a giant walk in freezer. Cold and lonely. I was sitting in the faculty lounge at school writing a long letter to Yves about it when another teacher asked me what I was doing. I explained everything…missing the warmth, both human and climactic, the friends, the food, the pace of life, the sunshine, the noise and excitement…

“I know how you feel,” she said. “I worked in Brazzaville for six years.”

I nearly screamed. “You understand everything,” I whisper-shouted, with tears in my eyes. Then I told her everything. It felt so good.

Perhaps the happiest I’ve been was at a meet and greet for international students at Université de Nimes to which someone had invited all of us assistants. Distancing myself from the slap-on smile girls, I started a conversation with the first African-looking guy I saw. His name was Robert and he was from Haiti. Not too much time passed before I was at the centre of a circle of talking, laughing Africans. Senegalese, Malians, Moroccans, Gabonese, Réunionnais. That’s me discussing Senegalese politics, that’s me in the conga line, that’s me dancing pretend salsa with a Malian guy in the middle of a circle of laughing, clapping Mexicans, big stupid grin all over my face. I haven’t smiled like that since the night at the Coeur d’Afrique cabaret.

Not too long into the party, while I was expecting the bizarre French finger food– bits of fried pastry dough, mini toasts with strange sauces, tuna tea sandwiches that were snapped up in five minutes because people knew what they were, and a pink and white thing in a glass that looks like either a jello shot or a fruit dessert but turns out to be neither, a sort of beet soup gelato with sour cream and mint- a black girl walks up to me. She bears a definite resemblance to Lisa, my kooky Jamaican roommate from Ottawa days. “I know you from somewhere,” she says.
“Where?” I say. To be honest, I don’t remember her at all.
She looks down at my beaded Burundian flag bracelet and then the little light goes on in her head. “The flight! From Bujumbura! You were on the flight!”
Her name is Marie Ange and she’s Burundian, studying to be a hotel manager. Her English is fantastic because she did one year of her program in Dubai. We reminisce for a good hour. “Oooh, brochettes!” she squeals when I mention those heavenly chunks of grilled beef. “Why are there no African restaurants in this part of Europe? There are in Belgium, but not here. I should open one.”

I have her number, and Robert’s, and two of the Senegalese guys.

When I was in Burundi, there was a Nigerian pop song which was all over the radio. Its lyrics were a mixture of English and Yoruba. The chorus went something like, “Sawa sawa sawa lé, sawa sawa sawa lé!”

Now, I haven’t the least idea what sawa sawa sawa lé means. Neither does anybody else in Burundi. But to a French-speaking brain it sounds like “Ca va aller,” which means, “It’s going to be all right.”

Ca va aller.


About msmarguerite

Young Quebec City-based freelance journalist. once and future nomad. I blog about life, about travel, about things I notice and every so often about work. I enjoy language learning, singing, swing dancing, skating and...other stuff, sometimes. My heart is somewhere in East Africa, Haiti or Eastern Europe. English, français, русский, malo slovensko, un poco de espanol, um pouco de português ndiga ikirundi, mwen ap aprann kreyòl...
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