Thursday, November 13, 2014

Algiers: ‎Botanical Gardens of Hamma

On one of our first weekends in Algiers I had the great luck of being at the right place at the right time.  Stuart wanted to spend the weekend morning at the office catching up on email from while we were on home leave, so Evelyn and I decided to visit the community pool at the ambassador's compound.  Turns out the ambassador had the same idea (going for a swim, that is).  We got to chatting and she said she had scheduled a trip to the Botantical Garden of Hamma in town that afternoon, but the person who was supposed to go with her was ill.  Seemed extravagant to have her big security team escort just one person around a park.  Would our family like to join her?

And that's how we ended up spending a lovely afternoon at the botanical gardens and how Evelyn's carseat got installed next to the ambassador in her official car  (Evelyn has no idea her life isn't normal).  The gardens were created in 1832, and according to Wikipedia, are considered one of the most important botanical gardens in the world.




Here's a bit of movie trivia for you: The classic 1932 Tarzan the Ape Man with Johnny Weissmuller was filmed in these gardens






and there was a small retro-style zoo




Ambassador Polaschik and the Denyer clan

Algeria: Oran and Tlemcen

Hard to believe it has been seven weeks since we arrived in Algiers.  I find that the more I get to know a place, the harder it is to write about it.  Much easier to skim the surface than delve into complexities.  So, let's stay in tourist mode and keep skimming, shall we?  ;)

Our CLO (community liaison officer) office at the embassy has been great about organizing at least one touristy activity per weekend, and we've been signing up for them.  We started with a 3-day holiday weekend to Oran and Tlemcen.  We went by train (Algeria has a modern and efficient train system) to Oran and from there by bus to Tlemcen.  My Facebook albums of highlights of the sightseeing trip are public, so feel free to browse:  architecture and cave, shopping, views from the top, train.

I was surprised to discover that Oran has number of posh hotels.  I won't share which hotels our embassy security office prefers us to use, but I felt like we were on a stylish vacation.



Some of my other surprises/lessons/stuff that started to sink in on that trip:

1) Oran is great city to walk around if you love architecture.  Beautiful old buildings, and there is a current effort to start restoring them.


2) The requirement about embassy folks having an Algerian police escort when we are outside of Algiers wasn't as creepy as I thought it would be.  In fact, it was kind-of nice to have someone watching your back and not have to worry about getting in trouble with the police for taking photos.

3) Tlemcen has a fabulously huge cave that goes all the way to Morocco--at least until the French sealed off the connect to stop arms runners! (Tlemcen is an attractive town, too)



4) There is a lot of agricultural activity going on once you get outside the cities in Algeria.  The clementine fruit originally comes from here. A friend says this region reminds him of the countrysides in Spain.

5) You can't start to understand what you are seeing when you walk around Oran without grasping the conflict that came to a horrific exploding point 1962 as well as the violence in the 1990s.

And that's all I'll say about that.









Thursday, October 09, 2014

Algiers Life: The People in my Neigborhood




Who needs a gym when you can climb this?
It's hard to believe I've now been in Algiers for two weeks.  Apart from catching the embassy shopping center shuttle a couple times and going to the botanical gardens (that's for another post), we've pretty much haven't left our new neighborhood.  The dog walks gives a nice excuse/motivation to explore our surroundings.

So what is my neighborhood like?  Well, as I mentioned previously, it is hilly.  This fact has not escaped the notice of our toddler, who comments on the embassy car going up and down as it drives her to preschool. The Hydra neighborhood (anyone who knows Algiers can easily guess what neighborhood I'm in) is home to several embassies and is relatively affluent.  That said, we're talking high-density-lack-of-parking-vertical-apartments-with-junk-sitting-on-people's-balconies affluent.  I'm not sure where the uber-rich live, but I doubt it is here.    

We are living on one floor of a building we share with other embassy families.  We don't have a 'yard,'  but we do have a reasonably nice shared tiled terrace with plant boxes and some mosaics on the wall. There are worst views to have from one's living room.  From the kitchen windows, I can even observe the activities on the streets below us.

There are many businesses in our neighborhood--especially on the main plaza, which is nearby.  Bakeries (fresh baguettes, croissants, pastries, etc), florists, produce vendors, gelato shops, pizzarias, fancy salons, shawarma shops, small corner grocery stores, fancy dress shops displaying gowns that defy what I've been told about Algerian modesty norms, travel agencies, school supply shops, tablecloth restaurants, etc.

not a sea view, but not too shabby
Everyone I've met has been very friendly--including the police officers/traffic cops, who seem to be on every corner.  I've even been surprised at the number of shop keepers who have invited me inside even when I had the dog with me (this is common in Paris, but definitely not in the USA).  Despite what I had been warned, I don't think I'm at any risk of feeling trapped inside my house at this post.

My neighborhood is full of life.  In the public spaces one finds boys gathered around foosball tables and groups of old men sitting on paint cans passionately involved in a game of dominos.  School children in their uniforms walk by our house in large numbers multiple times per day (half-day system or long lunches at home?).  Most want to pet our dog when they see him.

There don't appear to be many other dogs in our neighborhood, but there is an abundance of feral cats.  I'm told these are welcome because they keep the rodent population at bay. The levels of litter drive me nuts (especially when the youth hanging out by the convenience store toss trash on our street), but the government pays cleanups crews who occasionally come through and tidy up.    

One thing that has surprised me, though, is how many Algerians in my neighborhood don't speak French. Guess I'd better add Arabic to my growing languages-to-learn list!


In case it wasn't obvious, this is the soundtrack that was playing in my head as I typed this:


Thursday, October 02, 2014

Life in Algiers: Preschool

First day of preschool
Sunday (Fri-Sat weekends here), we took our daughter to preschool for the very first time.  We weren't sure how she would react to being left with strangers--let alone a polylingual (French, Arabic and English) school, so we'd been talking with her for weeks in advance about going to school.  Her Mimi and Papi even bought her a Dora backpack that she's been looking forward to taking to school.

When the day finally arrived, Evelyn acted like she was already a pro at this school thing.  Nonchalantly gave me a kiss on the cheek when I told her I was leaving and excitedly chatted to me about playing horses when I came back in the afternoon.  We're now one week in and she still loves going to school. Whew. 

 I don't actually know too much about what goes on in her school other than she likes her teachers, is making friends, and brings home refrigerator art most days. The French system apparently discourages parents from observing the school in session. That, and this school is located on a relatively busy street without a parking lot.  Pick-up and drop-off times are full of honking horns and stopped traffic.  Parents are supposed to promptly make the exchange and drive off.  This makes things particularly tricky because it is impossible to predict how long it will take to drive from my apartment to the school with traffic congestion the way it is.  Arrive too early and you have to circle the 'block' (or, if you're lucky to have a driver, you huddle with other parents in front of the gate waiting for it to open).  Arrive even a few minutes late in the morning and you'll find the security gate locked and you now without childcare that day.   

The first few days a new friend of mine was able to give us a lift to the school and even introduced me to a yummy nearby restaurant. Now I'm doing the embassy motorpool thing, which means gate huddle time (good for making new friends for myself).  So far at the gate I've befriended someone from Djibouti and a high-ranking person at another embassy.  That reminds me of a topic I should write more about soon--- the reason we are getting danger pay here.  As much as I want to share with my friends back home all about my surreal life, I do want to be especially careful about walking that fine line between "not letting the terrorists win by forcing me into a scared silence" and making it easier for them to plan attacks.  So, as to the name of the school (including photos/details of what it looks like) and who else sends their kids there, I think I'll error of the side of silence.  As to showing the world what my family looks like, well, that bridge was crossed a long time ago. 

Wishing you a peaceful weekend, and to my Muslim friends, Eid Mubarak! 

Evelyn's little lamb is saying "Eid Mubarak!"
 




Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Our first weekend in Algiers

Bab Ezzouar shopping center (image pulled from mall's website)

Having flown into Algiers Thursday evening, we got up Friday morning (weekends are Fri-Sat here) to catch the embassy's grocery shopping shuttle van.

Our destination was further away than I realized--a bit of a drive-- to the Bab Ezzouar shopping center (the shuttle doesn't always go to this one; sometimes it goes to Ardis instead). What surprised me most about the mall was that I recognized the names of several of the stores inside (and I don't mean like the "7-Eleven" in Lusaka, the "Big Boy" in Djibouti or the "KFC" in Lubumbashi).  They have an honest-to-goodness Hush Puppies store! They also have Timberland, Samsonite, Benneton, Lacoste, Nike, Swatch, etc. and a bowling alley on the second floor.

About the only things we couldn't find that we wanted in the large Uno grocery store was English tea (lot of herbals and coffees, though) and American-style milk.  We discovered the hard way that the stuff they sell in the refrigerated section in bottles that has a label that translates as "100% cow milk" is more like buttermilk or thick liquid yogurt.  Anybody got ideas on how to use 5 bottles of it? Pouring it on cereal has already been tried and rejected as an option.

The rest of the day was spent nesting in our new apartment and dealing with jetlag.

Saturday morning after a bit of a sleep-in we were picked-up by our social sponsors and taken to the heated swimming pool on the ambassador's compound so that our daughter could have a playdate with a few of the other embassy toddlers.  ---I want to pause a moment and say what great social sponsors we've had.  Not only did they have their preschooler daughter make a giant welcome sign for our daughter, they did generous things like loan us a soft set of bed sheets so we don't have to sleep on the cheap welcome kit ones while waiting several weeks for ours to arrive. ---

The community pool at the ambassador's is nestled inside the residence's extensive botanical gardens. My jaw hit the ground when I stepped through the security gates and saw the lush winding paths and palatial home.  There is even a small playground near the pool for the embassy children. I'd love to show you pictures of the gardens, but given local security concerns, you can understand why people are touchy about photography around government buildings here. Luckily, there is this photo of her house on the embassy's public website. You'll just have to try to imagine what the rest of the property looks like.  I'll give you a hint, though: fountains, a tennis court and rose and decorative herb gardens are involved.

Amb's house, Algiers (image pulled from USA embassy website)

Monday, September 29, 2014

Day 1 in Algeria: Arrival at the airport

Algiers' airport (image pulled from skyscrapercity.com)
As many of my readers (i.e. Facebook friends) know, this past Thursday my hubby and I arrived in Algiers, Algeria with our daughter and dog in tow.  I wasn't sure what to expect, so I was pleasantly surprised to step off the plane into a modern and efficient airport--several leagues away from anything else I've seen in Africa except, perhaps, Johannesburg--complete with fancy watch shops and a gleaming new car on display.

Driving from the airport to the apartment our embassy has assigned to us for the next two years, I noticed several things.


  1. This is clearly not the Africa I know.   (one of the reasons that, while on the continent of Africa, Algeria does not fall under the Africa division at the US Dept of State) 
  2. Algiers is a big crowded city that is a fascinating mix (collision?) of modern and historic buildings and infrastructure. 
  3. Fast-moving multi-lane roads with big overpasses and such become narrow crowded labyrinth-like streets as you approach our new neighborhood.  The traffic moves so slowly during business hours that is possibly faster to walk to one's destination at times. (example: it took me 30 minutes to go a distance of about 2 miles in an embassy car yesterday) I heard someone today compare driving in Algiers to driving in high-density old towns in Italy; sounds about right.
  4. Most Algerians seem to have a skin tone and hair color fairly close to mine.  I'm told that my facial structure would give me away as not of Algerian decent, but in general I could walk down the street and blend in with the crowd reasonably well. This is a very strange feeling for me, and I may (or may not) decide to write a blog post about the self-examination this has triggered for me as I reflect upon if I am interacting with the Algerians I've been meeting differently than the local residents I have met in the previous places I've lived in Africa (and what cues I may be subconsciously responding to: appearing 'Western'? appearing to be of a similar socio-economic status?) I also realized that although I had (incorrectly) thought there weren't many Algerians living in the USA, this is probably only because when I met them I would have assumed based on their accent and physical appearance that they were eastern european or middle eastern.   
  5. The streets in Algiers--or at least my neighborhood--are on quite steep inclines. Dogwalking here is going to do wonders for my thighs or kill my knees--probably both. Sidewalks are too narrow or (more often) non-existent, so I'm questioning whether I'll bother with using a stroller.  I'm dreading the one mile walk to my daughter's preschool (which would make 4 miles of hill climbing per day if I don't buy a car soon or get a carpooling solution).
  6. On the plus side, it is a very short walk to neighborhood grocery markets, a bakery, restaurants, etc. 
  7. While we were hoping we'd score an apartment with a stunning view overlooking the city and harbor (yes, some colleagues have this), we do at least get an attractive balcony view of a semi-private tiled courtyard with some nice mosaic accents.  Our apartment's ceiling have fabulous decorative molding in every room, our kitchen has a dishwashing machine (yeah!!!), our bathrooms are reasonably attractive (yeah!!!), and we have what appears to be veined white marble tile flooring throughout. It also has a long balcony, which I pray Evelyn never attempts to climb on. On the disappointing side, there is literally (not just figuratively) not a single closet in our apartment. To compensate for this, the embassy provided us a few armoires, but clearly our 3rd bedroom is going to have to function as storage room and we'll probably have to buy some shelving units or creatively repurpose our moving crates.  Don't worry, though: I'm planning to use our bookshelves to visually divide the room so when you come visit us it won't feel too much like you are sleeping in a storeroom. ;) 

So there are some of my initial thoughts.  More tomorrow--if I have time-- It turns out that preschool is only 2.5 hours long on Tuesdays---apparently it's a French school thing.
         

Algiers' airport (image pulled from thread on skyscrapercity.com)

Apparently this is the VIP lounge at the Algiers airport, although I wouldn't know (image pulled from thread on skyscrapercity.com)
 

road in Algiers (image pulled from essalamonline.com)

a street in my neighborhood (image pulled from panoramio.com)

a scenic view in my new neighborhood (image pulled from panoramio.com)








Friday, August 08, 2014

What I miss about Djibouti and some pictures

Lions and babouins and caracals-- Oh my!
It has been three weeks since movers loaded our materials possessions into containers and we boarded a flight out of Djibouti, so I thought I'd share some of the things I'm already nostalgic about in no particular order.
  • the wonderful friends we made
  • the ease of going to the beach, the islands and the pool any day that struck our fancy.
  • the ease of driving around town--not dealing with traffic jams or missing the turnoff
  • smoked salmon pizzas at all the pizza places (don't knock it until you try it) 
  • parties hosted by the French military community (great music, food, dancing, atmosphere etc.)  
  • never feeling cold (except in the embassy)
  • letting our dog run off leash on the tidal flats
  • Camp Lemmonier (while we rarely went, it was comforting to know that we could go catch dinner and a movie at camp or pick up junk food and electronics at the Exchange)
  • the French Protestant Church and its pastor-- so many nationalities and theologies together
  • ecumenical collaboration (since the government only permits one Protestant and one Catholic congregation in town, it is a very small world indeed)
  • Seven Seas/the embassy commissary: keeping our food bills down and our freezer stocked with cookie dough, bread dough and other luxuries
  • the massive embassy housing-- our daughter got to have an upstairs and downstairs playroom. We could hold parties on our roof.
  • road trips with our friends at Phoenix Travel
  • snorkeling and whale shark trips with our friends at Dolphin 
  • the old garrison town vibe: small town meets international hub
  • compound living: with so many toddlers and nannies, our house was always full of life.
walking the tidal flats to nearby Turtle Island
Air show at French air base

at a 40s party at French air base

Does your church rent 2 boats like this to spend the day on an island?!

Loading boat for church retreat

church retreat on Maskali Island

driving on the Grand Barra 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Closing Credits Time #ForeignServiceProblems

Some of the people Evelyn will miss the most. Photo by Lyn Englin
With my globally nomadic life I often feel like I'm living in a movie. Except instead of 2 hours, my movies last about 2 years.  It is closing credits time again, and we've been attending a string of goodbye parties for friends whose assignments are also ending. (FYI: The French events are extra cinematic with the nostalgic American dance tunes and visually dramatic venues.)

Closing credits time is when we attempt to tie up all the loose ends of our life here. When something can't be done I try to tell myself that it wasn't that important after all. I begin to lean out instead of in; no point starting something new, of meeting new people, of becoming more attached.  The folks I'd intended to reach out to and get to know better? That woman who was going to tutor me in Swahili? The themed parties we were going to host?  The Sheikh Djibouti dance school we joked about creating?  Not going to happen.

Being a global nomad is a bit like channel surfing.  On one hand, you get a glimpse of what's on every station. On the other, you're left wondering how the story lines would have progressed if you'd stuck around.  

Closing credits time in the foreign service isn't about "happily ever after."  It's about saying goodbye and going separate ways.  As folks who study these things know, it generally takes about two years to really get your full stride once you've moved to a new place-- to form friendships that go back years (2, to be exact), to have bonded with those who are slow to trust, to have integrated yourself into a community--to have found your niche.  Most foreign service assignments are three years long, but we're heading to yet another two year gig because Algiers is also considered a hardship post.

Now sure, at each post some folks are ecstatic to leave, but those folks weren't so happy where they were; I'd prefer to keep falling in love and having sad goodbyes.

And so, a toast to Djibouti!  Thanks for the beautiful memories. I will miss you all--especially those whom I was only just starting to get to know better.  May your lives be filled with bright sunny days.       


Saturday, July 05, 2014

Lubumbashi, DR Congo: robocops, pizza, and skinny jeans

There is a giant robocop at the busy intersection near the Methodist building in downtown Lubumbashi. There is also an Italian-style flowing fountain and a sleek food court/shopping centre featuring South African chain restaurants (including Galitos and Pizza Inn). Every direction I look I spot young women wearing tight fitting jeans and fancy tops.  Am I tripping on malaria meds or has reality shifted?

I've been coming in and out of Lubumbashi, DR Congo since 1995. It is the first big city after crossing the border from Zambia and the capital of Katanga, so pretty much a required entry point for getting to the United Methodist conference of North Katanga. Since Lubumbashi is a transit town for me, I'm only here a handful of days each year.  This has created a surreal time-lapse photography experience as I've watched the city change.

There was a time that this city depressed me--everything was rundown like out of a post-apocalyptic movie and the vibe was a mix of paranoia, bitterness, and an exhaustion that comes from barely surviving. Later, the city stressed me out--chaos, crazy cars, corruption and cruelty. The vibe was that of those hustling to climb out of their poverty by any means available. My North Katangan friends who had moved to this sprawling city with dreams of financial success were suffering more than they suffered back home.

Today, however, as I wandered around downtown and rode out to dine at a friend's house on the other part of town (the road was now paved all the way there!), I thought to myself how alive and healthy the city seemed.  I marvelled at the building renovations, new construction and beautification efforts. Even on the radio there was an anti-littering public service announcement.
 

Countless new businesses catering to the emerging middle class. It occurred to me that I need to rethink my wardrobe for next time; I was clearly the least fashionably dressed woman on the street.

Today I started seriously thinking that I would enjoy living in Lubumbashi... now if I can only convince the USA government to reopen that consulate here they closed years ago so that my husband can be the first to apply for the job. ;)


Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Happy in Djibouti

Hands down the best music video I've seen made in Djibouti.  Congratulations to everyone involved in this project!