The importance of ‘If’

Over the last four years, I have been trying to converse in a foreign language. In Germany, I immersed myself in German, using it every chance I got. I learned to throw caution to the wind and spit out words without worrying about grammar. The important thing was to speak, speak, speak… grammar comes later. I discovered immediately that there are a handful of words, without which, one can not successfully get one’s point across. It is all well and good to have a big vocabulary full of nouns, but if you don’t have the little words that tie them all together, the nouns are useless… not to mention you will sound like a caveman… drink. I. thank you.

My German is useless here in Guinea. French is the local language, along with a number of other tribal languages. I really enjoyed the challenge of learning another language, so I was excited to get started with French. After 5 and a half months in country, I have decided that French is hard. There are so many little words. Some of them are more like sounds then proper words, and I feel like half the time I’m just grunting. I throw in an uh, ay, or ah here and there, hoping for the best. My youngest came home one day from school excited that he could say the word blue. When I asked him to show me, he stuck out his tongue and said “bleh”. The funny thing is, he’s right. That is exactly what it sounds like… bleh.

Recently, I had an incident that reminded me how important those little connecting words are. I put in an order to have an electrical outlet in my living room repaired.  The outlet just stopped working and as a result, all the wires from the television, stereo, dvd player, xbox etc, ect… were spread across the floor to the only other outlet in the room. (Does everyone else have thousands of wires behind their telly?).

The two men that came to trouble shoot the problem, both spoke French and a little English. Normally, when someone here says they speak only a little English, their English is far better then my French, so we stick to English. This time, however, their English was about as good as my French… I knew right away, we were going to get into trouble.

After the man looked at the outlet, tested what he could, and checked the breakers, he deemed it fine. It seemed to be working.  It’s not surprising, really.  It’s like when you bring your car to the work shop… you have to explain the problem to the mechanic (sounds and all),  because no matter what you do, you can’t get the problem to reoccur while your in the auto shop!

The technician turns to me and says, in English,

“You have problem, call supervisor, he send technician.”

Now hang on a tick… did he just say I have a problem? I thought he said everything was working and there was no problem… so I ask him… in English,

“What is the problem? What do I tell the supervisor? I thought you were the technician?”

To which he responds,

“No, you have problem, you call supervisor.”

“But I don’t know what the problem is… what do I tell the supervisor? What is the problem?”

“No, no. You call supervisor, you need technician”

My frustration level begins to rise…

“But WHAT IS the problem? What do I TELL the supervisor? Can YOU call supervisor,  tell him what problem is?” (notice my pigeon English starting to kick in… maybe he will understand me better?)

(he rolls his eyes) “No, I no call supervisor. You have problem, you call supervisor, he send technician.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of desperation, I start speaking French…

“But I don’t know problem. I don’t know say problem at supervisor. I have need technician now. YOU call supervisor, tell he problem now” (as embarrassing as this is… I felt it only fair to directly translate what I actually said, and not what I was trying to say. That way you can fully appreciate my inability to communicate.).

The technician started speaking in French… You see, this is where I get into trouble. By asking a question in French, I am also suggesting that I am able to carry on a conversation in French. The person to whom I am speaking assumes that I am able to understand their reply. I can string together a sentence, albeit it rough, but I can only understand about 2% of the answer in return. Essentially, what this means is, I ask, he answers, I ask the same question, he answers the same question… it goes on and on in a circle.

It was in this circle that I suddenly realized what we were missing. That simple little seemingly insignificant word, ‘If”. I did not know how to say it in French and he did not know how to say it in English. Could it be this silly little two letter word that is causing all this confusion?

“If?” I ask,  “Do you mean, IF I have a problem?”

“YES!! YES!! IF”

He means, “IF I HAVE A PROBLEM!” Ah, it is all clear to me now. IF I have a problem, I should call the supervisor, yadda, yadda, yadda… geez…IF!

For those interested, the word ‘If’ in French is ‘Si’. It is now on my list of  ‘important words to learn first,  in any language’… and I will never forget it. ARGH!

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Our holiday excursion

Happy New Year! 2014 is here and I can barely remember what I did in 2013… oh yeah, I mostly moved. My list of major activities in 2013 is short and includes packing, unpacking, packing again, and unpacking. I look forward to 2014, a year that will not include moving!

Let me begin by saying a huge thank you to all of you that commented with ideas on how to handle my Santa Claus crisis from my last post Panic Time! I loved the ideas and am putting them all in my back pocket for Christmases to come… I understand a spread out Christmas is somewhat normal when living in the Foreign Service. In the end, some gifts did come! And even though they weren’t the big “wow” presents I was waiting for,  the kids enjoyed their surprises. It was Santa who brought these presents. The presents from the parents are still en route.

I realize it has been a while since I last posted anything and I blame the kids. Three weeks vacation is entirely too long for Christmas. Clearly the school does not have the parents sanity in mind when they make the school calendar… All kidding aside, we did have a nice holiday. No traveling (most people were astounded and confused when we told them we were sticking around for the holidays) and we managed to enjoy our time off. No alarms, no bedtimes (for me), and lots of movies and swimming. Today the kids have gone back to school and after I did my happy dance, I took a moment to sit down and blog. As I did so, however,  I had a hard time remembering my password… and I got a little frustrated,

Eventually I was able to retrieve my password from the deep dark corners of my brain, and am now able to share with you what we did for our Christmas holiday.

One of our excursions was a boat trip from the city to a little island off the coast. The name of the island is Roume and it takes about 20 minutes to get there on an embassy boat. As the embassy boat is having issues that tend to leave it’s passengers stranded at sea for hours at at time (something that would not go over well with children on board) we opted, instead, to rent a pirogue (complete with a captain, guide, and bailer). These boats can make the trip in 45 minutes.

Upon arrival at the docks, we found our guide, he handed us life vests (thank goodness) and escorted us to our boat. The pirogue was… um… floating. To get on the boat, we had to first step onto a different boat, to get to another boat, to get to the one we were taking. That was tricky… especially holding a 6 year old’s hand.

This was our boat…

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And these are the others we had to cross to get to it…

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Ok, we didn’t really have to cross all those boats, but it felt like it. We really only had to cross three boats to get to ours.

There was so much going on at the docks. So many people and boats. It was a chaos of sounds, smells, and water. All, I am sure, with a rhythm I could only catch glimpses of.

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Even though it takes longer to get to the island on a pirogue, it is such an interesting and relaxing ride, that it seems to go quickly (not like sitting in a traffic jam). It was very relaxing, until I noticed the guy in the back (whom I thought was just along for the ride) bailing the water out of the boat…

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When we finally reached the island we were greeted by a palm tree bent at an unbelievable angle, a number of curious kids, and a Tom Sawyer like atmosphere, with too many palm trees to count. We took a walk to the other side of the island where we found a hotel offering us a place to put our things, a fantastic lunch, and a place to play on the beach. When we came into the clearing of this beach, it was like being transported onto a deserted island.

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We spent the whole day playing in the surf, burying the kids (they asked us too…) and making sand men (it was the day after Christmas and the kids seem to be hard wired to make snow men… it was all we had).

At the end of the day, we loaded back up into the boat and started our journey home. Along the way, we say a ship that looked like it was on fire (turns out it was dredging a canal) and my youngest fell asleep in my arms.  It was a beautiful way to spend boxing day.

Our second excursion  involves a motorcade, a hike, and a swim in the river. But I will save that for the next post.  After being here in Guinea for three months, I am starting to see some of the beauty. Not so much IN the city,  the trick is to get out of the city! I hope to do it more and more. First I should learn how to master the art of Conakry driving. I want to send a special thank you to my Aunt Becky for supplying me with a homeopathic rescue remedy to use while driving… I will use that as a crutch to get behind the wheel, in an effort to get out more.

Until next time, stay warm and Happy New Year!

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Wordless Wednesday

After a particularly windy storm at the end of rainy season, there were signs of wind damage on the road. The taxi service must continue! Notice the passengers need only to scoot over to the side with a higher roof and off they go.

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Panic time!

Ok, I am panicking! Christmas is two weeks away and although I ordered the Christmas presents in the beginning of November, they have not yet managed to make it here. Explaining a late Santa to a nine year old who already knows the truth about Santa, is easy. Explaining a late Santa to my five year old, is why I am panicking.

Last Christmas my nine year old realized / discovered / stumbled upon the truth about Santa (a cat I accidentally let out of the bag, causing days of tears from my then eight year old, dropping my mommy points into the negative numbers and causing me many lost nights of sleep). So, given that little bit of history, you might understand my angst over discussing Santa with any children what. so. ever. Now I am facing the possibility of explaining to my youngest that Santa is late. Normally in this situation, I would just push Christmas back a few days. He only knows what day it is because I tell him… Of course, this is a bit more complicated with an advent calendar in use (which, ironically, DID come on time). To further complicate the situation, the five year old becomes a six year old three days after Christmas and THIS is a date he will not forget. He has been overly excited and talking about this birthday since the day he turned 5.

So tell me friends out there in blog land… What the heck do I do? How do I continue the lie continue the Christmas magic? What lie creative story can I tell the children to excuse Santa’s tardiness?

I have a friend who has never told her children that there is a fat man named Santa who comes into your house during the night and leaves presents by a tree. These children are wonderful children and have suffered no consequences from not being fed the Santa story. She gets to take all the credit for all the wonderful presents they get each year, not having to share any of the glory with a fat man in a red suit. There is great wisdom in that. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we tell this lie to our children and then go to huge extremes to foster the illusion?

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Christmas magic as much as the next guy, which is probably why I am so worried about how to handle this current situation. So please… Help me conjure up a tale to keep my children in their hazy sense of Christmas reality…

And may your Christmas be merry, bright AND on time. Happy two weeks before Christmas y’all!

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Dubreka Falls

This past weekend, we had another opportunity to get out of the city! We jumped in the car at O’Dark Thirty (to get ahead of the traffic) and headed for Dubreka Falls. Ok, it wasn’t dark out when we left, but since I am not a morning person, anytime I leave the house before 7:00am, feels like the middle of the night.

After I settled the boys into the car, found the right music on the iPod for the journey, and poured myself a much needed warm cup of coffee from the canister, the little one started to moan in the back seat. Now, our little guy tends to get car sick. Not just the “oh mommy, I-feel-sick,-I-will-fall-asleep-quietly-now” kind of car sick, but rather the “I-am-so-sick,-I-am-going-to-die-and-I-will-most-certainly-projectile-vomit-this-instant” kind of car sick. As he is moaning, I am gently tossing back ideas to help him feel better. “Put your head back and close your eyes… Try to go back to sleep… stop bothering me and let me quietly drink my coffee… You will be fine, we will be on a smoother road soon.

Um… He was not fine. And let me just pause here to defend myself. I did in fact chug the coffee and climb into the back seat where I tried to hold him steady and keep him calm, as we bounced our way through the streets of Conakry. I did not however, remember that I had motion sick wrist bands in my bag. It was Peter who remembered about the bands and tossed my bag back so I could retrieve them. Chalking another point up for Peter (he is racking them up lately), I wrestled with the bands and got them placed onto those tiny little wrists, only to have him (seconds later) projectile vomit all over the backseat of the car. We have officially baptized our new car (so sorry to the woman we bought it from, if she is reading this). I asked my eldest to toss me a cup that we had fortunately thrown into the car, to help catch the second wave. When I got no answer…or cup, I turned to find thing one cowering as close to his door as possible, without falling out. His t-shirt was pulled over his nose and his eyes shut tight. No help from him! I managed to grab the cup and catch the second wave, as I shouted frantically from the backseat calmly asked Peter to please pull over the vehicle. To which he responded, “do I REALLY need to pull over NOW?”

Um… Yes.

Once we got thing two all cleaned up, and his brain had a moment to recalculate its surroundings (it helped that he got to move to the front seat), we were back on our way. The roads became smoother and within an hour and a half, we arrived at the falls. We gathered our things from the car (I have got to learn to pack lighter for these day trips) and walked over the hill for our first glimpse.

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Man, it is pretty. There was a cool breeze blowing (ok, I know… my idea of a cool breeze has been drastically altered, but after living in an oven for two months, any breeze is cool). It was so exciting to see the clean, flowing water. Before we arrived, I was pretty sure I would not actually swim, for fear of all the weird things one can catch in the waters of Africa… But once I saw those waters falling over the rocks, I knew I was jumping in no matter what might be lurking in the depths.

We have learned by others that lunch orders should be placed immediately upon arrival, in the hopes the food will be ready before your departure time. In our case we arrived at 9am and wanted to be leaving around 2… So naturally the first thing we did was place our lunch orders. The boys and I suited up (note to self… Wearing my bathing suit from home and hence the whole day, is preferable to trying to change, while sweaty, in a hot, filthy bathroom with no lights). Peter headed off exploring for hiking paths and the boys and I jumped into the water. It was gorgeously cool. We walked all around the falls, sliding down the rocks and slipping behind the waterfalls to explore the small caves made by years of moving water.

Our lunch came with enough time to eat and enjoy it. I ordered the fish…

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I did not, however, eat the fish. I like to call myself a vegetarian want-to-be. I really don’t like the idea of eating meat and have a hard time doing so, if it looks in any way like it did when it was alive. I have a hard time working with a whole chicken or turkey… I get grossed out and start to feel really bad for the animal, opting in the end, for the vegetables (accept on Thanksgiving when there is sufficient time between the stuffing of the turkey and the eating the turkey… which I never carve). I know, it makes no sense…

My lunch came with not only it’s head and tail, but also it’s teeth. The chef was kind enough to gouge out it’s eyes and serve it with french fries, but I was unable to get past the teeth. Thing two was not at all phased. He shoved a french fry in the fishes mouth and said, “look! He is eating a french fry!”. He and Peter ate the fish. I stuck to the hummus (which was fabulous).

After another last minute dip in the water, we headed back to the city. It was a lovely day out and we can’t wait to do it again. Next time though, I will order the salad, change into my bathing suit before we leave the house, and place the motion sick armbands on thing two before we leave the driveway.

Have a great weekend!

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Thanksgiving already?

Is it really November already? Thanksgiving is a only ONE week away, which means Christmas is next month! Normally by now, the kids are feeling the Christmas buzz, we take an additional 10 minutes to get out of the house because of added winter clothes, the stores are full of Christmas music and turkey decorations, and there is an abundance of canned pumpkin, and all things orange.

So far none of those things are true here. It is still hotter then Hades and I have yet to see the first Christmas decoration. It doesn’t feel like thanksgiving should be around the corner! In fact, it was the month of thankful Facebook statuses (statii?) that reminded me to get an online order in for canned pumpkin.

So as I contemplate how to host a thanksgiving dinner amongst all the boxes that are currently stacked on top of our dining room table (yes, we have gotten our stuff. No, I have not yet fully unpacked). I am struck at how completely not-like-Thanksgiving it feels for us. We came from Germany, the land of overcrowded, unbearably cold Christmas markets that run from November 1 through the first part of January. I keep seeing pictures on Facebook of people from all over, dressed in winter clothing. I can see winter is near, but it is such a disconnect from my current weather. It is just weird. We are in the same time zone as those cold christmas markets and yet a world away.

I don’t know if there will be any build up to Christmas here. Whether there will be any stuffed Santas strapped to the front of trucks. Probably not, as this is a predominantly muslim country, but that’s okay with me. I will not miss the over crowded toy stores, the media campaign to buy more, decorate more, sing louder. I will, however, miss the lights, warm hot chocolate by the fire (spiked with rum of course), and the sweet silence of a falling snow (from England, I will oddly miss those Marks and Spenser’s commercials).

I did notice today that the mango trees are starting to bear mangos! They are still so small, but it is exciting to know they will be ripe in just a few months. This will now be my first sign of Christmas for the duration of our stay here in Guinea. When I see the mangos coming, I know I better start ordering the canned pumpkin and the Christmas presents.

Santa has to come a long way to get here, so he has to start early!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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Is life a choice?

Normally, I look for funny or crazy things that have happened in my day for blog posts (and there never seems to be a shortage of those). Writing these things down is a great way for me to cope or deal with the reality of my life here in Guinea. In doing so, I can see how sometimes ridiculous and odd my life here truly is at the moment. The other day, however, I saw something that I have not been able to get out of my mind.

Let me paint this picture for you…

We are driving home to a meal prepared by our new cook, listening to an ipod plugged into the stereo, riding in our super comfy car, windows closed, air conditioning on. We pass kids along the road that are similar in age to my kids. Some are running around and playing, some are carrying water jugs, all are wearing flip flops worn to a thin rubber layer. All stop and stare as we drive by. We pass piles of rubbish, some smoldering from being burned (plastic included) and we pass a man walking along the street. His clothes are filthy, but I notice his t-shirt right away…

“Life is a choice”

I often notice t-shirts around here because they are usually in english and are really out of place. They say things that most Guineans would have no context for. Because they are in english, I assume most of the people must not understand what their shirts say. I have seen men wearing women’s t-shirts, kids wearing shirts intended for adults, and women wearing ones designed for men. I often get a kick out of the mismatch of shirt to person. For example, I saw a man wearing a pink t-shirt that was entirely too small for him and it read “powder puff football”. He was dressed nicely, like he was going to work.

Normally when I notice these disconnects between the clothes and the person, I get a good giggle, but when I noticed the “Life is a choice” t-shirt, it gave me pause. I have been thinking about it over the past few days, unable to figure out why exactly it made such an impression on me. I write about it here to open up the discussion. I am interested in your thoughts.

It is highly likely this t-shirt was donated from a developed country and found its way to Guinea, to be bought (or bargained for) by this man in Conakry. Does it have the same meaning when worn by a poor Guinean, walking through garbage filled streets with worn down flip flops on his feet, as it does when worn by a college kid from America?

Now grant it, I do not know this man or anything about his life, and I am reasonably certain he has no clue what his t-shirt actually says. I don’t even know if he is poor or unhappy, but I have to wonder, did he choose his life? Am I just so blinded by my western version of a good life, that I immediately suspect that his life must not be what he has chosen? What does it mean to a poor Guinean to say that life is a choice? Or to extend it further, how do you say to the kids in the street carrying water to their homes, that life is a choice?

What do you all think? Is life a choice?

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