Sunday, February 25, 2007

I was hoping that my twins’ birthday party yesterday would provide lots of good material for today’s blog entry. It turned out to be a very typical kids’ party except for two things:

1. There were three sets of twins at the party. They made up 30% of the group. Come on and say it with me: “Oh! How cuuute”

2. As Mallory ripped open one of her gifts, I heard one of her little friends say proudly “See! It’s a vegetable keychain!” Mallory held up an orange object sewn out of plush fabric with a grinning mouth and demented-looking eyes printed on it. It wasn’t precisely carrot-shaped. It was considerably shorter and thicker, with a funny-shaped end at the top.
Mallory’s brow wrinkled as she dangled it. She leaned forward to see the writing embroidered across the bottom of the thing
“Funny Sex” she read in a loud clear voice. (She’s proud she can read in French and English.) “That is not a carrot” she announced authoritatively.
She was right. It wasn’t a vegetable, it was a condom: a fuzzy stuffed toy condom with a face and an attached keychain.
So, here sits Mr. Not-A-Carrot on my desk, right beside my computer. I am really regretting that my digital camera no longer works. A picture would be worth a million words on this one.

Friday, February 23, 2007

JP had seen flyers posted around town advertising a « nature walk » sponsored by a local French democratic association. He thought it would be a nice family activity. I carefully considered how to sell the concept to the kids. The lure of learning to identify local trees and shrubs would have limited appeal to my crew . The social attractions seemed like the best bet.
“I guess Marie and her family will be there?” I asked JP, thinking of her four kids that are the same age as ours.

“No! Definitely not. This is the Democratic walking group. All the Leftists will be there. Marie’s family is with the other walking group”

“Right. We better not have Socialists and Fascists looking at shrubs together.” I observed.

We are the odd ones. The only family that has friends in both camps and doesn’t see how walking is a politically charged activity. The Conservative group is made up of our friends from church and the Leftist group is mostly made up of teachers from the French school.

In the end, the primary selling point was that the event was happening in a park only a ten-minute walk away from our house. The twins were quite happy. The older two would have preferred to stay home and play Sims on my computer, but were pretty easily persuaded to put on their sunscreen and hats and come along.

We knew it would be hot and dusty. It’s the end of February, so that means there hasn’t been a drop of rain for about five months. The temperature was about 108°F.
But JP wanted to learn about plants, I wanted some exercise and the kids were hoping to see some friends.

As we entered the park, I was reminded of the old Wendy’s commercial where the old lady asks plaintively “Where’s the Beef?”. We were saying “Where’s the leaves?” The majority of the trees had already lost all of their foliage. So, there were two problems right from the start: no shade and few intact leaves for identification.
We walked down the dusty path, the orange African sun blazing down on us and every few yards our park guide would stop in front of what he apparently thought was a promising specimen. Quite often, it was just a dried-looking stick poking up out of the hard earth.
“Bombax Costatum” he announced proudly. “Used for firewood and mask-carving. They grow very big.”
We all stood around and looked at the stick.
The guide leaned over and picked up a shrivelled, grey object off the ground. “Here’s a leaf.”
It crumbled.
“ They are usually green, of course. And when the tree is older, it looks much different than this.”
Hmm…I was beginning to suspect this tree-identification walk was not going to shape up as well as we’d hoped. The guide knew the names of the trees, but no idea how to tell other people how to identify them. And the conditions were…less than optimal.
Add to this the fact that there were few kids, just a couple very young ones in strollers and one very serious 9 year old with a notebook and pencil. Oddly, she seemed to be having a good time. She certainly didn’t complain the way my kids did. After the first hour, they had had absolutely had enough. The walk was taking much longer than we had thought. And then we ran out of water. Ooops. But we were closer to the exit by this time, so it made no sense to go back. The only way to go was forward, towards the snack bar and the promise of cold Cokes.
“I’m dying” Alexa announced for the 4000th time.
“If you could die more quietly, that would be great. Otherwise, I suggest you keep walking. You are 15 short minutes from a drink .” I said briskly. I’m not sure that I’m a Bad Mom, but I am certainly not very sweet.
I could see no one was in danger of dehydration. The kids even stopped when the guide pointed out a small green plant with tiny seedpods on it. It looked so beautiful amid all the dust and dried leaves. We all leaned over the tiny thing, admiring it like it was carved in emerald.
That’s been one of the best lessons I have learned by living here for years. I’ve learned to appreciate whatever comes along. In this blog, I complain and criticise a lot. But that’s just because I find that’s the best way to extract the humour from situations. Appreciation just isn’t funny. But I do actually spend most of my days here enjoying whatever small, nice things happen to come my way, be it a new friend, a cold Coke or a small, green plant.
BTW: Nobody died, not even Alexa.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The entertainment portion of Saturday’s party nearly lived both up to and down to my every expectation. There were no less than two dragons, which was an excellent start. They were very small, two-person models, but quite nice, with bright colors and big, snapping mouths. I suspect that the front half of the red dragon had maybe overdone the cocktail hour, though. The front legs tended to stagger on occasion. They even missed what was supposed to be a spectacular jump up onto a tabletop and then missed again. But the blue dragon was quite satisfactory. Actually, I was very pleased that there were any dragons at all. As it was a party for the Year of the Pig , I was rather dreading that we’d be treated to pantomime pigs.
There was other dancing as well, the most remarkable being done by a very glamorous Indian dance teacher and two of her Taiwanese students. It was a mixture of Indian, hip-hop and stripper, all done to the strains of Shakira and other pop hits.
JP observed mildly: “I don’t find it very….subtle.”
“Well, if they start pole-dancing, I’m out of here.” I anwered.

Soon enough, it was time for “Ping Tsu”. There were several unsteady wooden steps leading up to the stage. I figured there was a pretty high probability of me falling on my face, as I am so unused to wearing even the tiniest of heels on my shoes. So, I paid attention to where my feet were going and concentrated on the fact that Seynabou had to be way more nervous than me. She’s a woman from Senegal that has been taking Chinese lessons for three years and she had agreed to sing the first verse of the song solo. She and I were the first on stage and shared one of the five mics. I was clutching the precious scrap of paper with the lyrics on it. Seynabou had it all down cold, of course. The solo went really well, as did the rest of the song. Nobody messed up the words, fainted or vomited (all possibilities, according to my informal pre-show survey of the performers). The applause was warm if not overwhelming.

There was lots more singing that followed. Particularly memorable were the two Taiwanese men that attempted to entertain the crowd with a duet. One was quite thin and tall and the other short and very round, with his pants pulled up under his armpits, channelling Humpty Dumpty. As they went into their song, it became evident that a few more weeks of rehearsal time would not have come amiss. It was possibly the worst public performance I have ever seen in my life. And I am even including all the events I had to go to when my kids were tiny and the “show” consisted of 20 four year olds standing in the middle of a stage, staring at their teacher who was in the wings gesturing and jumping up and down in what she hoped was an encouraging fashion, trying to indicate that they should dance around like they did in rehearsal the day before, but half the kids were sobbing miserably and spreading panic in the ranks. Not like these two guys were crying. But I sure would have if I were that profoundly untalented and found myself onstage with 300 people expecting me to entertain them.

There was more dancing, some songs by a Burkinabé entertainer and finally, it was time for the big finish. R., the mom of Mallory’s friend, took over the stage waving a huge feather boa. Strains of disco music began and we were treated to an astonishing performance, as R. went on to live her dream: performing her own version of the French 1970’s disco hit “Laissez Moi Danser” by the mega-kitch Dalida. But I don’t think “kitch” is on R.’s French vocab list because she was sincerely living the moment. She had even found several Taiwanese men to be her backup dancers and there was a kind of Madonna “Material Girl” vibe going. She’d dance with one and then push him away and go on to the next, all the while singing….well, we aren’t sure what. JP said “It sort of sounds like French, but it doesn’t mean anything. She’s pretending to sing in French!.” It reminded me of when the twins used to say they could speak like Emily: “Ping ching chang ping! See Mommy? Chinese!” It wouldn’t have been so bad, but it got rather off-key and excrutiating.
IRL I am (mostly) not as mean as I am in this blog. I merely remarked to JP “Well. It’s nice to see a middle-aged woman with such good self esteem”, which I thought was very restrained.
JP barely noticed the music because he was so euphoric over the fact that he actually won something, which he never does. Yes, his number was drawn and he got a prize. It was not, sadly, the new motor scooter or the round-trip ticket to Paris. He got a sports bag. I guess there’s luck and then there’s luck.

Coming soon: The Worst Nature Walk Ever

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The invitation to Saturday's fête requested that guests come in the traditional garb of their home country, Chinese clothing or informal dress. The latter only seemed like an option for the profoundly uncreative. But what would the traditional clothing of the citizen of the USA be? Native American would be the most accurate, but probably politically incorrect, as I have no Indian ancestry whatsoever. Plus I would look like an idiot. But that leaves what? A sunbonnet and a calico dress? Levi’s and a t-shirt with a snarky remark printed across the chest? I had no clue. But then, a miracle occurred! I went to the Rec Center jumble sale and there was an American woman selling a red silk oriental-style outfit. In my size and very cheap! Amazing!

Ok, I had clothes. Which was very good. But what about my hair? That would require professional help, I knew. As I sat there in the swivel chair at the salon, I had an epiphany: My hair is evil. Not difficult, unruly or untameable. It’s evil. It took two people three and a half hours to make me look decent. No wonder I can't manage to make it look even marginally ok. The avaerage mortal has no chance against it. The primary obstacle to any degree of coolness is the front lock that swoops down into a sort of question mark over my forehead. It’s a look that worked for Ruby Keeler in 1937 (see photo above right), but is considerably less attractive in 2007. It’s a bit sad to have hair that would have been a hit 70 years ago- seems like a waste, really. But here I am in the 21st century, trying to no avail to make it attractive. But at least now I know why I never succeed in this task. Just defeating the dreaded wayward front lock alone took two trained professionals a quarter of hour: one had to tug at it mercilessly with a huge brush while blowing super-heated air onto it , while the other simultaneously applied copious amounts of hairspray.
After the Herculean task of fixing my hair, I let the makeup specialist have a go. She did a nice job, very natural. And at about eight dollars, it was a good investment, considering that I don’t own any makeup, except for a tube of mascara and some lipstick.

JP and I got to the party at about 8pm. It was at the home of a Taiwanese businessman here in Ouaga. Why not at the Embassy? Well, lots of the guests wouldn’t be allowed to come if it was held at an official site, such as the embassy itself. The US Ambasador, for example, is forbidden by our government to even visit the home of any Taiwanese government employees.
It was a very impressive home in Ouaga 2000. Four stories, two pools, lovely landscaping and plenty of room for a stage outdoors plus tables for 300 people.

The first part of the evening involved standing around with a drink in hand, not knowing anyone. God, I hate parties. But then the US Ambassador and her husband showed up. We ended up sitting together and it made the evening much nicer. Despite the fact that the ambassadorial spouse kept asking JP about various digs and his opinion of the new archaeological museum at Oursi. He didn’t seem to understand the difference between an archaeologist (like me) and a cultural anthropologist (like JP). His wife was excruciatingly embarrassed and kept trying to clue him in, but it didn’t do much good.
The food was very depressing. No amazing Chinese cuisine in sight. Not a single bean sprout or mushroom. There was couscous, roast mutton, fried potatoes and fish in tomato sauce. Typical Burkina party fare. The only nice thing was the asparagus from the Taiwanese experimental farm, which was a treat. We don't get a wide variety of vegetable in Burkina.

Coming tomorrow: The end of the story. Really.

Monday, February 19, 2007

I have a deep anti-social component to my personality. The fact that I have a husband, four children and a team of no less than 3 household helpers really puts a cramp in my aspirations to hermit-hood. Luckily, I do have some small control over my life: I can refuse to go to parties. I hate parties. I hate smoking. I hate loud music. I don’t like to get drunk. I don’t like chatting with people I barely know. And people that I do know and like, I prefer in small quantities.

But when R. invited me to the Chinese New Year’s party for the Taiwanese Embassy, how could I resist? My undergrad degree is in anthropology, after all, and here was a chance to observe a the local Taiwanese community during their biggest holiday of the year, welcoming in the Year of the Pig. And I was also counting on some excellent food at the buffet.
R. is the mother of Mallory’s best friend. Mal and E. have been tight since the family arrived back in 2001, direct from Taipei, not speaking a word of French. R and I are not really pals. She’s nice enough, but she hangs with the international women’s club here in Ouaga. They are everything that is not me: The few times I have visited their homes, I have seen that none of these people have a single book, or even magazine visible in their homes. People that can read and can afford books, but don’t bother. Ick. Also, while the group does the occasional project “to help the less fortunate”- making quilted wall hangings or embroidering Christmas cards to sell and donating the money to a cause, they would never actually visit the homes of poor Burkinabé families or work beside them. (Who knows what you’d catch?) They are all about makeup, clothes and parties. (I’m generalizing like mad, of course, but being scrupulously fair is SO much less fun). These people have so much education and so many advantages, but they are doing NOTHING. They just live their lives of ease and ignore everything that surrounds them here.
But I figured that the New Year party would be an interesting cultural experience. Just this once, I said “yes”. Then R. asked if I’d be willing to learn a song in Mandarin to sing at the party with a small group of women. Hey- flattery will get you everywhere with me. I showed up at rehearsal two weeks ago and along with nine other women. (each of us from a different country: Burkina, Senegal, Belgium, Spain, France, Mexico, Argentina, India, Lebanon and the USA.)
and stumbled through a session of phonetic Chinese for the song “Ping Tsu”.
To help us practise at home, R. gave me a gift that I will treasure forever (really!!!). She made copies of a Chinese karaoke dvd for all of us. It has music videos of several songs in Mandarin and it is a trip! The fashions are right out of an episode of Dynasty circa 1985. The shoulder pad, while extinct in Europe and North America, is apparently alive and thriving in the Far East.
All of the female leads have a penchant for writhing around with diaphanous scarves fluttering in the breeze. And there can't be a single red rose left in the entire country, either real or fake. They are all needed as music video props. The music itself is a melange of The Carpenters, Abba and Kenny G, all done in a minor key with high-pitched, nasal vocals.
We had a couple of rehearsals with the Burkinabé band that went pretty well. We didn't sound exactly like the music video, but I thought that was a good thing.
So, the music seemed to be under control. But one huge question remained: What should I wear?

To be continued........

Thursday, February 15, 2007

We are planning a trip to the USA this summer. The main goal is to see family, but JP and I also want to take the kids camping. Years ago, before the kids were born, he and I did a couple of big camping trips, driving around the western US and stopping to pitch our tent wherever took our fancy. It was amazing. We saw Mount Rushmore, Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon and lots more. We vaguely agreed that one day we would come back and show it all to our kids, if we ever had any. We never dreamed there'd be four of them, but there you go. At least they'll be lots of help pitching the tents.
I have already gotten out the atlases and travel guides, thinking that we could use our preparations as informal US geography lessons. So far, the kids love it. They are so excited, trying to figure out where we can go and what we can see. Well, everyone except Mallory. She was the only one that didn't seem at all excited. In fact, her eyes were full of tears that first day.
"How long are we going camping?" she demanded tremulously.
"Well three or four weeks. It depends. What's wrong?"
She burst into tears. After some coaxing and hugging, the problem came to light. "What about Grammy and Grampy? We won't have time to see them!"
She was very concerned that the delights of touring America was distracting the rest of us from the main event: time with her grandparents.
We all rushed to assure her that we'd spend at least as long with my parents. But she'd just rather skip the whole camping thing. I even hinted that a trip to Disneyland could be in the works. No deal. (Her twin sister would sell both her parents into slavery for a chance at Disneyland!)
I also proposed that we get my Dad to camp with us a bit, but that didn't help. "Bridget couldn't come! She could get lost!" Mallory said indignantly. (Bridget is my parents' Wheaten Terrier.)
We are still working out the details, but Mal has consented to go with us. What finally sold her was Giant Redwoods. We'll definitely be making a stop in northern California!

Monday, February 12, 2007

I went to the dentist on Friday. It was pretty much a repeat of what went on last year at about this time. I went hoping for a quick fix. But, as usual, the fix turned out to be the slow and painful kind. My " small lost filling" was actually a huge hole with an exposed nerve at the bottom....same old, same old. It was pretty much a replay of what I went through about a year ago, when I begain this blog. Have a look at the entry for March 30, 2006.

So, I’m back and only lightly medicated. Not that I have lots to blog about. I wasn’t feeling up to much over the weekend. We went out to lunch on Sunday. NOT to Happy Donald Hamburger House, but rather to the girls’ favourite: Le Restaurant du Chine. It’s air-conditioned and boasts a completely over-the-top Chinese restaurant décor complete with lanterns, plastic bonsai trees that light up, bead curtains and red everywhere.
How was the food? Surprisingly good! And it was nice not having to listen to my nine-year old threaten to throw herself under the wheels of a passing Land Cruiser.

Near our house is a small outdoor restaurant called “L’Aval”. Like many of its kind, it’s just a small stand about as big as the average bathroom in the USA. The actual cooking is done outdoors. The tables and chairs are plastic lawn furniture from Ghana. In less fancy establishments, the furnishings are made out of sticks tied together with goat hide. . They sit right at the edge of the street, so you don’t miss out on any of those exhaust fumes. What really sets L’Aval apart, though, is the décor.
Right next to the tables, there is an old white toilet bowl. I about caused an accident the first time I noticed it. I should have kept my eyes on the road, but I was mesmerized. “Is it being used as an ashtray? Spitoon? Rubbish bin? Planter?? Yes! I think I definitely see stems of something poking out of the top…..Ooops! About hit that chicken. Better quit gawking.”
Further investigation under less hazardous circumstances (I walked by) showed that while plants are indeed growing in the toilet bowl, they are just weeds. But let's be honest, would sticking begonias in it really improve it that much?

The next time I have to coerce Alexa into good behaviour, I’ll threaten her with a dinner of bat stew at L’Aval, at a table right next to the weed-filled toilet.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

What with all the curses raining down upon me the last few days, I haven’t had the courage to post anything. My car, which was just “ repaired” at great expense, is broken down again. And JP’s work truck is in the shop as well.
And I am feeling about as broken-down as my Toyota. My allergies are back with a vengeance, as well as the asthma. And let’s not forget my broken tooth and lost filling. The only bright spot is that codeine is sold over the counter here. It’s the only way I’m going to make it until my dentist appointment tomorrow.
Between the pain and the breathing problems, I’m not sleeping much. Yesterday I did go see the women at the VAO for a bit, but I felt so ill that I came right back home and went to bed for the rest of the day.

This morning I had to go to the Pharmacie St Hilaire near our house to get some more codeine. As I was waiting to pay, I noticed that the display near the cash register was quite a large assortment of “sex aid” type products. Viagra, Super Hot Sex Oil, Tigress Cream, Lubrifist (!?!) and I don’t know what all else. Gee, back in the USA, they put the candy and gum near the cash register to tempt those impulse buyers.
And I know the stuff isn’t there to avoid shoplifting, as every single product in the place is behind glass. Yes, you have to ask for your “Bois Bandé” (Erection of Wood!!) by name from the pharmacist.
And right in the middle of it all was a little pink box of…. a very common wart remover. Is it to give you an excuse to be perusing the sex stuff? You can stand there and say outloud, as though speaking to yourself: “Gosh darn this wart on my hand that I wish to be rid of! This wart removal product right here sure looks very useful!”

I know that I must have looked like a total pervert as I stood there, very obviously staring at the whole set up, not saying a word about my pesky warts. My fellow clients probably thought I was having a tough time deciding between "Loving Slick Secret" and "Big Bust Forever Developer".

I guess this is it. I took a big dose of codeine and it has kicked in. I feel a little funny. Better, but funny.
JP says I'm "stoned"!! I better go lay down.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

As we watched an episode of Lost last night, we saw Locke dangle a plastic bag of what looked like oregano in front young Claire. I thought “ Yay for them! They can make pizza!” But of course, Claire knew what Locke did: the bag contained (dramatic music here) heroin. Naturally. Nothing as banal as a useful herb or spice.
It’s weird . Locke is a middle-aged guy that used to have a low-level job in a box company. Claire is a nice 19 year old single mom with no criminal past. And yet, like all people in movie-land, they know a bag of heroin when they see one.

“How is it that people on tv shows and movies always know what drugs look like? I’d have no clue what the heck that was.” I said to Valentine.
“Yeah.” she agreed. “ It looked like pepper to me.”
But I guess all the shows would be much less thrilling if the characters just shrugged their shoulders and started cooking……..

Now that I got that off my chest, (That felt great. Thanks.) ,on to another subject: my weekend. Saturday was spent at the Rec Center, selling off outgrown clothes, toys and videos. They had a small jumble sale/fun fair that was put on by the Embassy. I sold lots of stuff. My only complaint is that my table was in the sun and I ended up getting rather burned

There was an evening mass at our church that night. Then we followed up with dinner at a crepe restaurant. It’s a nice place, owned by a Burkinabé friend and her husband. The kids all love it, so we didn't have to sit through any suicide threats.
My only problem with the place is the Brittany seaside décor. I really, really hate interiors festooned with fishing nets, models boats and pictures of ( shudder) lighthouses. (Amazing fact: JP also has a horror of the Fishing Boat School of Decorating. We were truly meant to be together) Not a bag of heroin in sight. But then, how would I know?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The census-taker passed by just around Christmastime. I forgot to mention it, what with all the other excitement around here. I found his arrival delightfully timed, lining up nicely with the Biblical account of the long journey of a carpenter and his spouse- a journey prompted by a census.

Fortunately, we were not required to trek back to JP’s place of birth in northern Lorraine. The census-taker came to us, clipboard in hand, I showed him into the living room and suggested that JP be the family representative. I thought I’d just go into my office and eavesdrop a bit from in front of my computer.

He first asked JP’s name, then:

“Are you married?”


“How many wives?”

“Beth!” JP shouted towards the office. “How many wives are there now?”

“I forget”. I answered. If I was a quick thinker, I would have said, “ Just the one now, since I poisoned that girl you brought home last week.” But that might have scared the census guy, so maybe it’s for the best.

The interview went on to enquire about the number and ages of our children and which of them, if any, go to school.

He then asked how many motorscooters our household owns.




“Pirogues?” ( small fishing boats)


“How many camels?”






I heard Mallory whispering urgently to JP in English “Tell him we have guinea pigs! And two turtles!! And a rabbit!”

The census guy then asked about the house- whether we have electricity, running water, radio, etc.

He went on to end the interview by asking JP for a job, which was a bit of a surprise. But I guess census-taking is just a seasonal job. If he asked in every home he went to, maybe he ended up finding something.

I was never interviewed by a census-taker when I lived in the US. But I wager that it wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining as here in Burkina.