Silence is golden

I once heard that smell is the strongest sense associated with memory.

So, according to whatever I read/saw/was told, when you catch a whiff of something familiar from your past it is more likely to trigger a memory of that event or place than something you see, touch or hear.

I consider my sense of smell to be pretty good, but when I smell something familiar I know it reminds me of something, but I usually cannot put my finger on what. It drives me a bit batty actually.  I’ll smell something and then stand there wracking my brain to come up with where or when I smelled it before. Smells for me are more likely to evoke an overall “feeling” for me. The smell of flowers like those in my Grandpa’s garden, the smell of a horse or barn , the smell after a rainstorm or a snowstorm – those scents all evoke a feeling of calm and happiness in me, but they don’t necessarily bring back a specific memory.


Not so with music.

The first few notes of a song will bring back a flood of actual, specific memories for me. B got me a wireless speaker for Christmas (hooray B!) and I put it on shuffle and got to work in the kitchen today. I made bagels – actual real bagels – as opposed to bread circles with holes which pass for bagels in Kinshasa. They don’t look beautiful, but they have the perfect crunchy/chewy outside and the soft delicious inside that I love about a bagel more than almost any other bread. After that I made pesto. My basil is out of control in the little garden I planted (well, the gardener planted with my seeds, direction and guidance), so pesto had to be made.

And while I’ve been cooking today I’ve been listening to my own music and being flooded by memories. Right now Tragically Hip is playing. It reminds me of a concert in Chapel Hill, nights on the lake with a fire burning, sitting next to their manager at a friend’s wedding (which then leads me to think of that night being the first time I tasted good port – and it was good!) The memories just keep coming. Before that was Yaz. That took me straight back to camp, to 9th grade, to dance clubs in Toronto and later in Louisiana. I can’t even imagine a smell that could bring back a waterfall of memories like that.

After my best friend died in September 2001, it took me literally months to be able to listen to music again. Any music that I was in the least bit familiar with conjured up an obscure memory of my time with Karen. And every obscure memory caused a cascade of grief that left me bawling in my car, at my desk, in the supermarket, or anywhere else I heard it. I finally just had to avoid music altogether in order to be able to proceed through my day without swollen, bloodshot eyes. I had to ease back into music. Gradually getting back to a place where it brought me more joyous memories than sad ones most of the time.

Lately though I have been desperate for silence again. Not to avoid memories, but to avoid the sensory overload that seems to be built into this city.

Ever since the start of the holidays (and keep in mind there is no Halloween or Thanksgiving here so Christmas decorations were basically up at the beginning of October) Shoprite, the supermarché  next door, has had a DJ who starts playing around 3 p.m., and keeps playing until at least 8 p.m. every day. Some days there are also birthdays or weddings in the restaurant behind Shoprite and then the music can go – quite literally – all night.

We couldn’t understand why the parties lasted so long until Papy (our neighbor’s driver who provides me with a lot of Kin/Congo information) told us that it can be dangerous to travel late at night here, so when people host a party they keep it going all night so their guests can travel home safely the next morning. This is all very well for the guests, but for those of us who live next door it is not ideal.

Today it started raining while we were outside – C and some friends playing in the pool, me picking basil and washing the dog (not at the same time), and, apparently because of the rain, all of a sudden the DJ turned off his equipment. I almost dropped to my knees in joy.

It might not be so bad if everything wasn’t so chaotic all the time. This morning I had to drive down to the embassy to get cash (we have to cash checks here – the ATMs aren’t safe to use and this is a completely cash society) and get gas for the car. You can never relax when you drive here. Sometimes it is a lot of fun, bobbing and weaving in traffic, but other times it is just too much. Today, driving down the main boulevard, called Blvd. du 30 Juin (the day of Congo independence), as I approached a light that was flashing that it was going to turn red, it seemed that I would have room to cross, but then a large bus stopped in the intersection so I stopped – about 10 inches into the crosswalk. Half a dozen other cars went around me – several well after the light had turned red (traffic signals and traffic police are just suggestions to a lot of Kinshasa drivers), but I held my ground despite the guy behind me going to town on his horn.

kin traffic

Then along comes a pedestrian. He stands in front of my car and proceeds to berate me for stopping over the crosswalk. Seriously. Never mind that cars drive on sidewalks and lawns to get around traffic routinely, almost no one obeys lights or signals – half of which don’t even work – and most of the time pedestrians are jumping barriers and running across the middle of the street in front of oncoming traffic, this guy is yelling at me because he has to walk an extra two steps. It’s these little things that start to get to you living in a city like this. Would he have yelled if I’d been a Kinois? Probably not. But the privileged diplomatic-plated white lady was, apparently in his eyes, just disregarding the pedestrians because she could. Coming home after days (and drives) like this to loud thumping music day in and day out, coupled with other sensory chaos has been taking its toll on me and the silence that descended when the turntable went off was amazing.

It makes me wonder what sounds of Kinshasa will bring back memories of these two years for me in the future. Will it be the sound of car horns and angry French/Lingala being yelled at me? Or the pounding bass of the club music blasting next door? Or, maybe, if I’m lucky, it’ll be the sounds of C and her friends playing in the pool, or the sounds of petanque balls and laughing with our friends while listening to Wilco in the background, or of Stromae in B’s car singing Papaoutai, or maybe it’ll be one more memory for Yaz, playing on my wireless speaker while I write a long overdue blog post.

Game night

When I imagined life in Kinshasa I pictured the family game nights of my childhood.

On rainy and sub-sub zero temperature days at my family’s cottage (house on a lake for all the non-Canadians out there), and on many evenings, our family gathered round the dining table and played games. As we got older there was also usually a puzzle set up on a different table that two or three people would huddle over, squinting at all white tiles trying to determine whether they fit into a cloud or a snowbank. We had no cable and no internet, so the options were limited. Watch a movie on the VCR (or Beta – my Dad is an early adopter and sometimes he backed the wrong horse…), do a puzzle, or play a game. In my mind’s eye the lights are turned low, there is a fire burning and the darkness outside wraps around the house making all seem cozy and sheltered.

It’s not that I expected cozy nights around the fire in Kin – the fact that it was going to be 90 degrees in the shade many days was one of the things about the Congo that strongly appealed to me, the girl who is always cold. But, I was led to believe that internet would be spotty, or so slow it would be like returning to telephone modems, and cable would be non-existent, or full of things we didn’t want to watch, so I planned accordingly.

I packed puzzles and games and DVDs. I even bought B a beautiful wooden cribbage set for Christmas last year (with an etching of the lake where the cottage is – and where we were married). We requested puzzles for Christmas presents, we asked for recommendations on TV series and movies and we stocked up on games. I thought I’d have hours and hours to read and write and filled boxes with books accordingly.

It is all sitting, unused, in our playroom and on the bookshelves.

The reality of Kin is that most weekends are filled with so much activity that we are too exhausted to play a game or do a puzzle when we get home. Now that we are in rainy season it certainly rains – but rarely for more than an hour or two at a time, so there are no all day sit inside, noses pressed up against the glass, watching the rain and being bored moments here. Clearly there are no -22 degree days to keep us inside, and when it is 95+ we just get in the pool.


The last month has been no exception – and has, in fact, been busier than earlier months due to the holidays.

First came Halloween. The embassy (or really the CLO (“Community Liaison Officer”)) organized a trunk-or-treat party with games and cookie decorating after the candy grabbing was over. C (and we, if truth be told) had a blast.

There was no traditional door to door trick or treating, but I realized that we have never had a “traditional” Halloween with C. In our old neighborhood in Charlotte there was a Halloween Parade with dozens of small children dressed as princesses, pirates, ghosts and Cindy Lou Who (in the case of C) trailing along behind a fire truck, getting candy from neighbors standing on the street and ending up at the community center for a pizza party.  In D.C. last year we did Halloween on the Hill and wandered around Capitol Hill with good friends. So Halloween in Kinshasa was really not that much different than in the U.S. for us.

The night of Halloween was Oktoberfest at the Symphonie Des Arts – so we left C with a babysitter and went out on the town to witness a large majority of the Kin expat community wearing dirndls and lederhosen made out of the local pagne cloth and dancing the night away to a band brought in from Germany. Schnitzel and sauerkraut – and dozens of other German dishes – were set out in a buffet and beer was flowing as it does only in October at German parties. And, to top of that night, we did the Conga in the Congo.


The next day we headed with a large group out to see the Bonobos – apes that are only found in Congo because they don’t like to swim and won’t cross the Congo River. They are fascinating to watch – incredibly human-like – but their society, which is ruled by a female, apparently has the motto “make love, not war” and they are free to demonstrate that motto in actions rather than words. Luckily the children were more transfixed by the baby Bonobos than the “rumble in the jungle” going on at every turn and we escaped without having to answer any hard questions.

On Veterans Day the kids were in school, but the Embassy was closed, so about 40 people chartered a bus and took a tour of Kinshasa. We visited sites generally off limits, not only to us because of security, but to everyone, including the final resting place of Laurent Kabila (or “Papa Kabila” here), the father of the current president. Papa Kabila became president of the Congo in 1997 when he overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko (or just “Mobutu”), the dictator of the country for over 30 years, but Papa Kabila was assassinated only 4 years later in January 2001. His mausoleum is impressive, but is generally completely inaccessible. It was a rare insight into a city and country that is not generally a tourist destination in any sense of the word.

After that we had the Marine Corps Ball, then Thanksgiving at the Ambassador’s residence – with people in the community bringing their favorite side dishes. Two days after Thanksgiving was the “Kid Power” festival featuring almost a dozen bouncy houses which almost made C faint from excitement when she first saw them. This weekend we have a “Hail & Farewell” party on Friday (when the community welcomes the newest arrivals and says goodbye to the folks headed to their next tour) then C’s “Spectacle de Danse” on Saturday. On  Sunday, as on all Sundays, we’ll have our weekly “cocktail hour” at the compound.

Through all this we have managed to have a couple of game nights with some good friends, and they have been everything I was hoping for and expecting – laughter, mingled with competition, while darkness closes in around us and the A/C glows in the background.


eeny, meny, miny…mangosteen

I know, I know, I have been a total blog slacker. But seriously, I am like a kid in a candy store here and sitting down to write a blog post has been sidetracked by a long list of adventures and outings in the last few weeks. This having a car and being able to drive thing does not suck in a city like this.


Even better news is that I’ve found someone (several someones, in fact) to adventure and outing with me! Hooray! So since we returned from the U.K. here is what I’ve been up to:

I painted C’s room. She wanted a pink “princess-y” room and she got it! There are no Home Depots here so I asked our gardener if he could take me to find some paint. He took me to a Marché – basically hundreds of stalls selling everything from fruits and vegetables to, you guessed it, paint. I saw my first “bush” meat (though I averted my eyes so quickly from the head on the table next to the meat that it could have been just about anything and not necessarily something from the bush…), we bought a spade for the garden, and we found a paint stall where we bargained for a gallon of paint and then argued back and forth to get the color right.


Not my photo – but a good idea of what a Marché is like

Like Home Depot every can of paint at the stall starts out white. But, unlike the HD, there is no “formula” or machine to measure the amount of color that needs to be added to the white to get the right shade of, say, pink. So I also only had one shot to get the right amount. There would be no going back and saying “Hey, could you make me another gallon of ‘C’s Room Pink'” cause you would never, ever be able to get a match.

The tin roof of the stall had hand wiped “swatches” of colors that I was able to use as a starting point. I showed them a light pink and then they started adding red paint to the white and stirring it. I have heard that when you buy a 4 gallon can they use their arms to stir, but the woman I bought from used a stick, so it wasn’t that exciting. It was $20 for a gallon. Not too bad as paint goes.


I got to work painting and I bought a border for the room as well (though I had to order more so that part is not finished yet…) and I’m pretty pleased with the results.




After (though still have some border to add…)

I also went with the gardner, Blanchard, to buy rocks. We have a little area in our back yard that is not paved and is too shady to grow grass, so it is, naturally, Miller’s favorite place to hang out. The result is that if it rains at all the dog tracks muddy paws all over our tile floor house. So Blanchard and I figured that if we put rocks in that area Miller will be walking on rocks, not mud, and everyone (except Miller…) will be happy.

We had to drive slightly out of Kinshasa – on the same road we took to Zongo – to buy the rocks from a family by the side of the road. They gather these rocks out of the Congo River and then sell them. There are tiny rocks all the way to giant boulders – all for sale – which they keep in neat piles. They use a bucket to measure the rocks you are buying, and they are priced by the bucket. So the small-ish rocks we bought were 3000 CF (about $3.25) for a bucket. I’ll write more about the family one day, but for today this is just about the rocks. It was fascinating and made me (again) so glad that I am able to speak French as it allowed me to talk with one of the little girls out there and ask questions about what kind of fish they get out of the river. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Lingala (the local language) and the man I asked only knew the names of the fish in Lingala, not French. But, he could tell me in French that they are delicious.


I also discovered an art gallery called Symphonie Des Arts which doubles as a ballet/workout studio. The gallery has some works by some amazing local artists and I have had a hard time not spending a lot of money there. I signed C up for ballet and she now goes twice a week to study with Mme. Nicola. She goes back and forth between loving and hating it (mostly, I think, because Mme Nicola does not take any of C’s attitude…) but she has to keep doing it because I love how cute she looks in her ballet outfit!


Not sure if she is loving or hating it here…

There are also all these amazing birds at Symphonie – macaws, African parrots, fancy chickens and this guy – no idea what he is, but he’s gorgeous!


Rainy season has started, but luckily that does not mean that it rains all the time (as it does in some African countries). It means that the majority of the days are sunny and bright (and HOT) and then we have these truly wicked thunderstorms. And then we jump in the puddles, naturally.


My adventure-mate and I have also been systematically checking out the duty free stores around town where diplomats are allowed to shop. We still have a couple of others to check out, but we have found some good bargains…


$35…pretty sure I paid $60 in the U.S.

Finally, we have discovered a new fruit. There are rumors that these can be found in California, but we have never seen one anywhere before. They are called mangosteen, though they are nothing at all like a mango. It is not really possible to describe the taste – sweet, but not too sweet ,and delicious – but oddly I always think of crawfish when I’m eating them. Why? Because it takes a lot of effort to get into them and the joy of eating the result is way too fleeting before you have to start on another one!


An unopened mangosteen


A fleeting moment of deliciousness…

I can’t write more today because we’re headed out to the Embassy Trunk or Treat event, then B and I are going to Oktoberfest (apparently the party of the year and also, bizarrely, at Symphonie Des Arts) and tomorrow we’re finally going to find Curious George’s friends and relatives and visit the Bonobos (the most recently discovered great ape which is only found in Congo!)

It’s a busy weekend here in Kinshasa folks and who knows what next week will bring.

I, for one, can’t wait to find out.

On second thought…

Ok. Remember when I said I loved my stuff and I didn’t think I had too much of it?

I was wrong.

I (and let’s be honest here, it really is me and not B & C) have WAY too much stuff.

How did I discover this truth? I received the last of our shipments. Our HHE from Arlington, and our consumables. Four more crates full of sh…stuff.


You might recall the 1,600 lbs of food I sent – it’s now here. A crate full of yumminess. I was excited about that, but I (for some unexplained reason) thought that the rest of the HHE from Arlington would be maybe one more crate. Nope – it was three. It did contain a queen sized mattress and three bikes, which obviously took up a lot of room, but how did our tiny little apartment fill three crates!?


My living room on boxes…

I got the food side of the consumables unpacked and organized in the pantry pretty quickly, but the rest of it has been (really) slow going. I’ve been unpacking and finding places for things, but suddenly my nice uncluttered house is starting to look a lot more cluttered. I finished painting C’s room, so she has moved in and we have transferred most of her toys there,  but that hasn’t seemed to make a dent in the office/spare room. It is like an explosion of STUFF when you walk in. And the bathrooms, now that we have received two years worth of shampoo, soap, lotion etc…, look like a smaller version of CVS.



But don’t be fooled into thinking that this means I not going to be buying anything else. Nope. I’ve got an Amazon Prime Pantry box in the works and I’ll be heading to the grocery store this morning to look for, of all things, chili powder. Seriously, how could I forget plain chili powder? I have a cupboard full of spices, about 6 different kinds of curry, and coriander, cardamom, cumin and cinnamon in all their various forms, but good old add-to-your-chili chili powder? Somehow that did not get included. So last night, as I’m making B’s top secret chili recipe for the Chili Contest on Saturday I had to go to my neighbors and beg for chili powder and now I’m headed out to buy a jar of my own. [Wait! News flash! Did you guys know that chili powder is actually a blend of spices? Of course you did, but I did not – until now – so hooray – I made my own chili powder and it has made my chili DELICIOUS!]

It is baffling that even with all this stuff I could still need more, but there it is.

C didn’t worry about there being too much stuff. She only had eyes for one thing – her bike. She has been asking us when the bike would arrive since we set foot in our house over two months ago.

She marched straight up to the supervisor and said “Did you bring me my bike?”

Catching my eye, he nodded. “Yes,” he said.  “It is in one of these boxes.”

“Can you please get it for me now?” C asked.

And bless him, he bypassed the boxes with the consumables and the mattresses and went straight to the crate with the bikes.

C is not always comfortable with strangers, but apparently the promise of delivering her bike made her fast friends with John. She walked up and put her arms out for him to pick her up, which he did.


“How come your truck is so slow,” she said to him.

“My truck isn’t slow,” he answered, looking puzzled.

“But it took a LONG time to get from our house in Washington,” C responded. “So it must be slow.”

We, the adults, looked at each other for a minute and then I realized what C meant.

“She thinks this is the same truck that picked up our things in Arlington,” I told him, laughing. “She saw them load a truck with boxes and crates, and now a truck with boxes and crates has arrived in Kinshasa, so to her it must be the same truck.”

Leave it to a four year old to make sure everyone has a good laugh in 95 degree heat while unloading heavy boxes.

This has been an ongoing struggle for B and me – trying to explain to C that the four inches between Africa and North America on our map are not literal. As far as she is concerned we can swim to Canada from here, so why shouldn’t a truck drive from Arlington?

C didn’t think it was funny at all, and was not impressed by the delay in finding her bike while John told all the workers in Lingala what C had said in English.  But, eventually the bike was found, peddles were added and, from a four year old perspective, all was right with the world.

Our gardner asked during the unloading if he and our housekeeper could each keep a crate. “Of course,” I said. “What do you do with the crates?”

It’s an innocent enough question, right? I should have anticipated the response, but somehow I had not.

“We use it for our roofs, Madame,” my gardner told me. “They are not very strong and with the rains coming, this good wood helps keep the rain out.”

This “good” wood is plywood.

And so my stuff became to me, quite literally, an embarrassment of riches. I could feel my cheeks getting red as I stood there watching them unpack the crates. Box after box after box.  A bed that no one will sleep in 90% of the time. Pillows for decoration. Dozens of wine, martini, champagne, cocktail glasses that will sit in the china cabinet. China that will only be used at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Four boxes of Christmas ornaments and decorations. And the plywood crates it all came out of that will be the roof over the heads of two people who come to my house every day to my life easier.

I was standing there watching this, feeling horrified, when our neighbor’s driver, Pappy, who I turn to with lots of questions, asked me what was wrong.

“It is just so much, when so many people have so little,” I said.

“Oui Madame,” he replied. “Mais c’est comme ça partout dans le monde. Certaines personnes ont plus, d’aucuns ont moins. Vous assurez que vous appréciez ce que vous avez.”

“It is like that that over the world. Some people have more, some people have less. You make sure that you appreciate what you have.”

This truth is not lost on me. There are plenty of people in the world who have a lot more stuff than we do. And people whose sole goal is to get more stuff. Make more money, get more stuff, on and on until they die and there is no more stuff to get. And it is as true in the U.S. in many ways as it is in Kinshasa, but somehow it is just not as obvious. Maybe because I don’t know anyone sleeping under a plywood roof – and appreciating it – in the U.S.

It doesn’t make me like my stuff less, but it certainly makes me look at it differently.


Boxes, boxes, boxes and paper, paper, paper…

So now I have the stuff put away. It is folded, arranged and stored so that there are no more boxes in my living room. The bikes are in the garage, the china is in the cabinet, and…the plywood is keeping my gardener and my housekeeper dry.

And I appreciate having our tools back, and my desktop to write at, and the spare bedroom arranged.

The question I’m asking myself is whether I appreciate it enough.


Contrast and Perspective

On Friday I had a shower in clean water.

Run down my face and into my mouth without worrying about bacteria, upset stomach or anything else-type clean water.


The last several weeks have been all about contrast and perspective for me. Starting with our trip over Labor Day to Zongo Falls, the closest thing to a “tourist destination” near Kinshasa, and ending with my trip, with C, to the UK to visit my parents and celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary – and enjoy heavenly clean water showers.

The back and forth between the “real” world (home, school, Kinshasa) and the “unreal” world (Zongo Falls resort, Brussels, London) has been eye opening. It’s no surprise that an appreciation for what you have (or don’t have) is all about perspective, but I’ve come back to that realization again and again in the last few weeks.

It started with the trip to Zongo. Approximately 30 US and UK embassy expats met in the Shoprite parking lot at 7 a.m. on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend for the 105 km drive to the falls which are southwest of Kinshasa on the Inkisi River (a tributary of the Congo River).

Unfortunately, this is a 105 km drive that takes, on average, 4 hours. The first half of the drive is marked by the hustle and bustle (and traffic) of leaving Kinshasa. Saturday is a working day here, so even at 7 a.m. there are a lot of people about, the street markets are alive with people (and a few animals) and maneuvering through it all takes talent, patience and nerves of steel.

The second half of the trip is marked by a “well maintained” dirt road. Here’s where you start needing a little perspective as “well maintained” means that it is not marred by huge pot holes, but only small ones, so you’re not crawling (as you do on some streets in Kinshasa that DO have huge pot holes) but you’re not breaking any land speed records either.


During this drive you are also passing all manner of “real” Africa. Little villages with mud huts, chickens and children running along side the car overjoyed at being smiled and waved at by the passing Americans. An overturned truck with gas pouring out of the bottom – and nearby villagers rushing to the scene with buckets to hold – in bare hands – under the stream of gas less it be wasted. Roadside markets selling beautiful bright vegetables and jars of dark honey. Women in traditional Congolese dress, small children at their sides, all with baskets or bundles on their heads. Cars and trucks with dozens of people – or a random goat – sitting on the top. It’s what you expect of “real” Africa, but, then again, it’s hard to believe you are, really, seeing it.




The contrast comes at the end after you cross over a dam and turn into a lovely resort with well maintained buildings, luxury accommodation (by most standards) and stunning natural waterfalls. When we arrived we were a little giddy as we walked into our “residence” with two bedrooms, two baths (complete with plush robes), a full kitchen and a living space – overlooking a beautiful pool on one side and the falls and jungle on the other.



Congo is not a tourist destination. It is, in fact, quite the opposite as the U.S., the U.K. and Canada (and I’d venture to guess most first world nations) issue travel warnings to citizens NOT to travel here. So to find a resort (relatively) close to Kinshasa seems unlikely, if not impossible. Yet, there it is.






And we had a wonderful weekend – enjoying the playground (which, while it didn’t exactly compare to the playgrounds C and I found on our trip to the UK, was pretty impressive compared to the playgrounds available around Kinshasa), playing Pétanque, eating, drinking, hiking to see the falls and generally enjoying the company of our traveling companions. We did have a bit of a scare when we first arrived and we were told by our server at the restaurant that he was very sorry for us because “il n’y a plus de l’eau.” Luckily, it turns out that “no more water” means something different to a man who lives near a waterfall than to those of us who do not.DSC_1748

Then, less than two weeks after returning home after Labor Day, C and I were off to England to celebrate with my parents and there the contrast of clean water, clean streets, fresh berries, and plentiful EVERYTHING was almost overwhelming.







To walk down the street without dust in my shoes…heavenly. To shower in clean water…sublime. To take C to the most amazing playgrounds – one right behind my parents’ flat – joyous. The problem is that I started to forget to keep my perspective. I started to feel resentful that we would have to go back to dirty feet and showers instead of baths (because I cannot seem to stop my 4 year old from wanting to drink bath water!?).


Yes that is a meat popsicle - courtesy of Jamie Oliver

Meat popsicle – YUM!

I forgot to recognize that, while a head of broccoli was 0.49 p (about $0.75) instead of $17, there were plenty of things that were more expensive in the UK (it is a VERY expensive place, after all), and, for example, while berries were plentiful, mangoes were not. I forgot to recognize that I hate the cold (and cold/wet is even worse) and I love heat. I forgot to recognize that having the luxury of household help allows me to write uninterrupted while C plays with her friends. I forgot, for a little while during that lovely clean water shower, that B is where my heart and my home is, no matter how dirty the streets that surround us.

So returning home – to B and Miller and dirty water and burning trash – was both joyous and difficult. The contrast between the London and Kinshasa is dramatic. They are almost unfathomably different. But instead of lamenting the lack of raspberries in the store, or coffee shops on every corner, in Kinshasa I’m trying, upon our return, to focus on the perspective of how lucky I was to spend 10 days with C and my parents celebrating a milestone in their lives and enjoying things which most people here will never get to experience – and relishing in the warm weather, the fresh-off-the-tree mangoes, the helping hands of two people who make my life infinitely easier every day, and having B back at my side.

And, one final note, while we were away our car was finally released from Congo customs so we now have a means to navigate this unwalkable city – a way to explore and move about with the ease and privilege afforded by a good car bearing diplomatic plates. And really, who needs raspberries when you have that?IMG_1992 IMG_1904


For the last 12 months we have lived without. Without a junk drawer. Without excess. Without clutter.

In our corporate apartment in D.C. we had the items provided by the housing company. Basically that consisted of a small frying pan, 3 pots, 6 plates, bowls, cups and glasses, six forks, spoons & knives, a kettle, and a few kitchen utensils. We supplemented those items, at least in our kitchen, with a few things that for us are “cannot live without,” including our cast iron frying pan, a Le Crueset pot, my coffee maker, our knives and a couple of my favorite wooden spoons. The rest of my kitchen went into boxes and was shipped off to storage.

There were certainly moments when I wished I had some item or other – a muffin tin, a bread pan, a rolling pin – but for the most part I made do. Admittedly I didn’t cook as much as I used to, and what I did cook was not as adventurous or experimental, but no one in the family seems to have come to any harm.

Many FS people we talk to believe that one benefit of Foreign Service life is the ability to shed “things” every couple of years. In 23 or so months we (by this I mean the “royal” USG we…) will pack up and move ourselves and our stuff somewhere else in the world (and we won’t even know where for about another year!). So, essentially, every two years or so we are forced to take stock of what we own, what we need, what we don’t need, and, ultimately, what we want to drag to the next post.

I’ve met several people in the last year who’ve told me they got rid of all their “stuff.”

“I don’t care about ‘things,'” they tell me.

I think if B had his way we would be in the “get rid of everything” camp (though I’ve been to the homes of some of those people and they still seem to have plenty of stuff…)

So I’ve been thinking a lot about why I DO care about things – at least some things.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that I care about things above people, or experiences, or just about anything else, but I do care about the things that make me feel comfortable. The things that make my ever changing “residences” into my ever changing “homes.”

On Friday we received our HHE (house hold effects). Four huge wooden crates filled with our stuff – and our mattress wrapped and sitting on top. Things, things and more things.

And I was deliriously happy.

Could I have lived here – or anywhere – without all these things? Absolutely.

Do I want to? Not particularly.

So I spent the weekend unpacking and revelling in STUFF.

MY STUFF! Our lovely blue chair that is so comfy to snuggle into and read. Our throw pillows which almost (but not quite) disguise the deplorable embassy provided “gold” couches which have seen (many) better days. Our stainless measuring cups. Our art. Our photographs. Our bed (I could almost cry thinking about the joy I will feel when we finally get rid of the embassy provided queen size bed and set up our bed…ah, King Size Bed…how I love and have missed you…).

I know it’s absurd on many levels, and if all the stuff in those crates had fallen off the boat they came on I would really only have been sad about the irreplaceable photographs and art. BUT, that doesn’t mean that I’m not happy that they didn’t fall off the boat and are now sitting in what would otherwise be a very impersonal house making it feel, smell and look like home.

  As an added bonus we will now use one of the crates to build a bed for my vegetable garden.

We did take a break from unpacking to drive out of the city for the first time to a place called “Chez Tintin.”

The draw of “Chez Tintin” has nothing to do with the random statues of the iconic Belgian cartoon “sleuth” Tintin and other characters from the books. The real draw is The River. Le Fleuve Congo. The location overlooks rapids that have stopped many a traveler from the Atlantic (though they are not the huge rapids that forced many early travellers to portage from miles below Kinshasa into the city (then called Leopoldville)).  One day I’ll attempt to describe the drive and the location a little better, but for now a picture will have to be worth 1,000 (or less) words since there are still boxes waiting for me to happily discover the “stuff” they contain.



Food for thought

The D.R.C. (or “My Congo” as it will be henceforth known to distinguish it from the Congo on the other side of the river, the “Republic of Congo”) is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of natural resources. Most nations could only dream of possessing the vast variety and depth of resources found here. But, unlike the U.S. and Canada, the riches here have been rarely seen by the country’s own people. Instead, for hundreds of years Europeans (primarily Belgians, but the Portuguese, French and English can’t claim total innocence) pillaged this country in a way that is hard to describe and harder to accept once it is described. Add to that the history of violence that has plagued the D.R.C. since it’s independence and the images that most frequently appear beside the word Congo are, to put it mildly, bleak. But this is not a bleak place. On the contrary it is a place of light and unexpected beauty, despite its dirty and unlovely aspects. And the abundance is, even on a micro level, amazing.

Every couple of days a wizened (love that word, by the way) old man named Papa Clement shows up at my door with boxes and boxes of fresh vegetables. The bounty is overwhelming and I haven’t been able to stop myself from totally overindulging every time he shows up. The result of my inability to control my vegetable buying has been hours of wonderful time spent in our kitchen.


In the last week I’ve made: gazpacho, eggplant parmesan, cabbage and apples with sausage, ratatouille, guacamole (twice), moussaka, zucchini-banana chocolate chip muffins (twice) and an assortment of carrot side dishes. All of it (well, except for the sausages) with produce brought to my door by Papa Clement.



If he doesn’t have a vegetable I’m looking for, then I can go to Shoprite and buy it – it takes more effort than in the U.S. (no weighing and taking veggies on your own here – there is a dedicated person to whom you bring your produce who weighs, bags and tags it with a price in the middle of the produce section), but most of what I’ve needed I’ve been able to find.


Some things are wildly expensive by U.S. standards. Last week I bought a bunch of asparagus (C’s favorite) for about $14. Yesterday they had strawberries – a quart was about $18. Broccoli is routinely in the $15 range for a head. But other things are cheaper since they are so readily available – an avocado here? It’ll cost you about $0.50-$1 depending on where you buy it. Fresh cilantro, mint or parsley – $0.50-$1 for a huge bunch. A pineapple? $2. A mango? $0.50. Bread is amazingly cheap – a really nice loaf of crusty multigrain or white bread– cooked onsite and daily – is somewhere in the range of $1.50-$2.

There are, not surprisingly, some things that are rare and difficult (if not impossible) to get here: “real” milk, salmon, chocolate chips, Mexican food and an assortment of very “American” items like single serving mac & cheese (which C loves and I feel decidedly guilty about ordering, but which I buy from Amazon anyway). But, most things are ultimately here and available – albeit, in some cases, at a price. You just have to decide what you’re willing to pay for.

I was going to make shrimp tacos this week – homemade tortillas (another thing difficult to find and/or expensive), fresh pineapple, slaw and avocado, but I looked at the bags of frozen shrimp and discovered that a pound cost $56 (actually probably more than that as it was 56,000 Congolese francs and, while most of us do a 1:1 exchange in our heads it is not quite that good, so it was probably more like $60…). Needless to say we will be eating chicken tacos instead.  But, on the flip side of that, I found my favorite cheese (Cambozola – a mixture of Camembert and Gorgonzola) in not one, but two stores for a pretty decent price.


Another thing that is bizarre by U.S. standards in some of the grocery stores (City Market being the one I know) is that nothing has a price – just a number. So you find the number of the item you need, say B103, then you go to the end of the aisle and look up B103 on a long price list posted at the end of each aisle. It drives me batty.

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From what I’ve been told all the stores used to price items like City Market does, but now there are at least two large stores (Hasson et Frères and Shoprite) that put prices for each item directly in front of you rather than making you walk up and down aisles repeatedly to compare prices. Maybe it is the competition lawyer in me, but I keep wondering if City Market will be forced by competition to eventually change its ways and put prices on the shelves for each item. Only time (a lot of it knowing Kinshasa) will tell.

There have been pleasant surprises (beyond Papa Clement and the Fresh Produce (band name in my next life?)) and funny moments as well in my grocery buying time here so far. One of the bags used by some of the stores to package bread has a large picture of President Obama on it, so I have dubbed it “Obama Bread.”


And one of the ubiquitous brands for many items, soda, mayonnaise and water included, is “Canadian Pure.” How can I go wrong with that?



Lizards and Spiders and Beers, Oh My!

Life in Kinshasa is settling into a bit of a routine. We got into our “permanent” (in the FS this means 2 years) house last Sunday and we’ve unpacked our suitcases and the 16 boxes I sent myself from the U.S. before we left. We’ve received one Amazon Prime Pantry box of goodies and we’ve got another on the way, so the knowledge that we are only an online order and two weeks from more mac & cheese singles (C’s favorite) or dog food, is comforting.


The house also has two major advantages. First, it has a lovely pool that not only provides endless hours of entertainment, but also makes the view from the living room that much nicer. The walls of our living/dining room are entirely windows across two full sides and look out to the pool area and the backyard. Ironically, the water is a bit cold for too much swimming, though we understand that once the wet season starts in about a month and the weather gets hotter the cold pool temperature will be a welcome relief.



The second advantage, at least from my perspective, is the proximity to Shoprite, a South African grocery store chain. The strip mall where it is located also has a clothing/fabric store that I can’t wait to explore and an ice cream store called Nice Cream that will also be a welcome spot during hot days. As was probably clear from my earlier post, the ability to get out and MOVE is important to me… For some reason we run out of things to drink way faster than things to eat, so the ability to trot the 500 ft. over to Shoprite and pick up juice, soda and beer, makes life just that much easier. And this is my kind of place as far as beer. The most popular local beer is a lager called Primus. After enduring the last 11 months in Arlington where asking for a lager a restaurant seemed akin to asking for Spam for dinner, I am a happy lager-drinking girl.

C might disagree on the second advantage to our house. For her it is that there are about 14 other children living in this compound of 8 homes. Four of them are teenagers and might as well be adults from C’s perspective, but the rest range in age from 2 ½ to 9. On most afternoons (and many mornings) the whole lot of them can be found in the compound courtyard riding bikes in circles (thank heavens for the folks who’ve been here a while and have extra bikes), drawing with chalk or playing. During the day, at least right now when school is not in session, they rotate between houses and pools. Usually, there are also a number of additional children from other U.S.G. housing nearby.

The only thing the children share the courtyard with are the lizards – a wide variety of green, black and orange lizards sunning themselves and doing “push-ups” if any of the kids (or adults) get too close to them. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a place where there were no lizards, but I find them fascinating. B couldn’t care less about them and I chalk that up to growing up in Florida where they are not exactly a novelty.


The only other creatures we’ve come in contact with are birds, most with beautiful songs, and one very large spider.

So here’s the deal about me: I don’t kill things (except cockroaches) unless they are a threat to my child, my husband, my dog, or me, or they are known to be dangerous. Therefore, when I walked into the bathroom yesterday and found this spider staring at me, my first instinct was not to stomp on it.


My first instinct was to say, “Huh. That is one BIG spider. Wonder if it is dangerous?” I had my phone in my hand, so I took a picture (it had, by that time scooted over to the side of the toilet bowl) and emailed it to B with a message saying “Can you ask around and see if anyone knows whether this is dangerous?”

In my defense, I wasn’t wearing shoes (and was, in fact, still in my PJs) so it’s not like I could have stomped on it anyway, but once I’d sent along the email I backed out of the bathroom to find some shoes and wait for B’s response. B called me almost immediately.

“Kill it,” he said.

“Why?” I countered. “Is it dangerous?”

“I have no idea, but it is huge. Just kill it. I don’t want it crawling on me at night.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “It won’t crawl on you at night – our bed is covered in mosquito netting. It won’t be able to get in there.”

B was having none of it.

“Says you,” he said. “Just put on your big girl panties and go and kill it.” (as if my reluctance to kill it was because I was afraid of it rather than because I don’t think it is my place to randomly kill other creatures).

Unfortunately for B, the spider was nowhere to be seen when I returned to the bathroom. I did keep my eye out for it all day, but I (turns out wrongly) assumed that once it had met Miller it would leave the house of its own accord, just as it had unilaterally come in.

I did do some due diligence and asked the nannies in the compound whether it was dangerous – to which they said no. One of our neighbors identified it as a “huntsman” or “hunting” spider and said it killed roaches. This further justified my feeling that not killing it at first sight was the right move – anything that kills roaches so I don’t have to is a good thing in my book.

As we got ready for bed B repeated his concern that the spider might join us under the mosquito net and I poo-poo’d his worries. The netting goes all the way to the floor – surely it could not get in there (setting aside the question of why it would want to get in there in the first place). We settled down, turned off the lights and started to drift into sleep…then I happened to look up. Almost directly above my head, on the netting, I saw a long leg move.   I slipped under the net and turned on my bedside light.

The spider was inside the netting.

“Um, B,” I said. “You need to slowly get out of bed on your side of the bed.”

He was clearly almost asleep by that point and he slurred, “Why?”

“Uh, well, turns out you were right,” I replied. “The spider is on the netting. On the inside.”

He moved pretty quickly at that point, spluttering “arrrrgh, I hate you!” as he scrambled out, and we ended up both standing outside our bed, looking at the spider inside.

Needless to say the spider did not get another chance. He was summarily squished with B’s shoe. Sheets were changed and, somewhat surprisingly, we both got a really good night’s sleep. So while in Africa at least, it appears I will have to abandon my moratorium on killing first and asking questions later, and, for the rest of my life, B will never let me forget that he was right and I was wrong about spiders and mosquito netting.

Tuesdays are radio call-in days

Every Tuesday while we are in Kinshasa we will test out our U.S. Government issued radio to be sure it works in case of an emergency.   For the next 99 Tuesdays, give or take, we will call in to Post headquarters and say “this is Echo 1 Zulu,” or something like that, and they will respond, “we read you Lima Charlie, Echo 1 Zulu. Over and Out.”

So on top of my daily exercise in French, and my desire to learn some Lingala (the local language) while we are here, it turns out I’ll also be learning the military alphabet.

For reasons that have always been unclear to me these letters have evaded my best efforts to remember them. We were forced to call in on C’s call sign today because I cannot for the life of me remember what “y” is. Yellow? Yahoo? Yoda? I have no idea. In our threesome of a family, I am the “y”, B is the “x” (some slight irony for genetics geeks) and C is the “z.” The only one of the three I can remember is “Zulu,” so C is the caller on this first Tuesday of our time in Congo.

All morning long we’ve been hearing the chatter as other folks call in. B had to tell me “Lima Charlie” meant “Loud & Clear” before he left this morning so who knows what other “phrases” will also pop up that will seem as foreign to me as the Lingala spoken by most people on the streets here.

We had a hard day yesterday. C and I have now been in this apartment, almost non-stop, for 6 days. We have only the things we brought with us and the contents of two of the boxes I sent from the States. Thank Amazon one of the boxes contained Mac & Cheese and an art project, so I’ve been able to keep C relatively occupied and fed. My phone stopped working on Sunday, and the internet died sometime in the middle of the night on Monday. All we need to do is replenish the money in both accounts, but we are struggling to figure out how to do that. Luckily my phone can receive calls and texts, but I have no way of calling out.

The day yesterday was a bit cooler, with almost no sun. Overcast and hazy. Lovely in many ways with a fresh breeze blowing through the palms in the compound yard, but not really pool weather (at least for 90 degree loving me). So, we did an art project, wrote a letter (a lost art that I am thrilled C will get to know and love), and walked the dog. C played on the phone while I worked out in the handy little gym downstairs.

On Sunday we discovered that directly across the hall from us is a little girl named S who is 5 (or who “has 5 years” translated literally from the French). S is also the daughter of an American in Kinshasa and speaks English. So late in the afternoon we knocked on her door and invited her over to play. Apart from a few “that’s mine” and “I’m the winner” moments that are to be expected between any 4 and 5 year old, the play date went really well and I actually got some time to read.

Then S’s “nou-nou” (nanny) took the girls out to the play area where there is a trampoline, swing set (like no swing set you’ve ever seen – metal and more like a swinging metal couch than anything else) and play house. I went downstairs and sat by the pool to read some more, wanting to be in somewhat close proximity since Nou-nou doesn’t speak English and C doesn’t speak French. It was a great hour. I listened to the girls giggle and scream in joy while I relaxed and read.


Then came the fall. Literally.

As we were walking back into the building, Nou-nou and the girls in front, me bringing up the rear, C tripped on the doorframe and fell hard onto the marble foyer floor. When I ran up to them she was crying that her knee hurt, so I picked her up and we went back to the apartment. I sat her down to look at her knee and she said, “Mommy, my head hurts too.” So I lifted up her mop of yellow curls and saw a huge lump right in the middle of her forehead. Yikes.

Now I’m the daughter of two doctors, so I’m not one to panic at the sight of bumps, bruises or blood. So I didn’t panic. I got a bag of rice that was conveniently in the freezer (yes, everything gets put into the fridge or freezer here to avoid any unpleasant bug surprises when you are making dinner…) and put it on her head. Then, once she had calmed down, I started to think about our circumstances.

We are in a strange city where we are restricted in movement. We have no working phone. We have no working internet. We have only a radio. The radio is for emergencies. What kind of emergency qualifies? At what point would a bump on the head qualify as an acceptable use of the radio? I have no idea. I felt the weight of that Lima Charlie.

And these are the questions that plague me on these long indolent days. I am a woman of action. I normally know where to turn when I need help (even if I am sometimes loath the ask for it). I drove across the country in the 80s, in my teens, with no phone or radio and never thought twice about it. But there is something about the addition of my child that makes me feel helpless and unnerved by my lack of knowledge here. Where is a hospital? I have no idea. A doctor? Don’t know. I don’t have a car. I can’t call a taxi. Hell, I can’t even call B. 99 Tuesdays stretch far, far ahead of me.

The booklet we got from Post when we were assigned to Kinshasa said: “The first day will be the hardest day, the first week will be the hardest week, and the first month will be the hardest month.” While it might very well be true that the first month will be the hardest month, the first day was definitely not the hardest day – the 5th day was. But I also ask myself, what if we were in China? Or Mexico? Or Brazil? I wouldn’t know where the hospital or doctors are there either, would I? And without a car, phone or internet I’d be equally at odds when facing a bump on the head and wouldn’t feel nearly as comfortable with the language. Even if you dropped me in the middle of L.A., or some other large U.S. city that I am unfamiliar with, I’d still be out of sorts without a car or communication with the outside world. So it’s not really about this particular place, it’s about the unfamiliarity of any new place – and, given the transient lifestyle we have opted for – this is obviously a feeling I’m going to have more than once.

So maybe I need to relax in the knowledge that I have this radio. This little box that sits quietly on our dresser all week except for Tuesdays when it squawks to life momentarily and the Marines at Post One confirm that all is well with the radio and perhaps, by implication, the world that we now live in.

Marines, after all, they are my lifelines to the outside if I need them; what better lifelines could I ask for? This is the bizarre reality of this new life. I don’t have a phone, a car or the Internet, but if I need them the Marines will come to my aid.

Here’s hoping that 99 Tuesdays from now I will sign on (having learned what “y” stands for…) and do my last radio check, and that in between now and then all our bumps in Kinshasa will be minor ones and we will never need to call on the Marines, or have them call on us, for anything else. Over and out.


Freedom of Movement

The gates of our compound are guarded, day and night, by three or four uniformed men. They push open the heavy metal gates at the entrance for cars coming in, and cars going out. There is no separate gate for pedestrians, because the people who live behind our walls do not generally walk out, or walk in. If you live here the guards will open the gates and you are granted entrance to a sanctuary of calm compared to the busy movement of the outside world here.


The guards greet me in the morning when I take the dog out with a friendly “Bonjour Madame,” tipping their hats and giving me a shallow bow. They are both fascinated and very (very) wary of Miller. They cluster in the door of the guardhouse and watch us walk by. I have told them “Il n’est pas mechant. Il est gentil, vraiment.” (he is not mean, he is nice, truly). But so far only one of them has been brave enough to come close enough to touch the dog – and after he tapped Miller lightly on the head he jumped back as if he’d touched a wild bear.

There is barbed wire covering the walls that surround the compound. Inside our apartment we have a “Safe Room,” where, if necessary, we could hunker down for any unrest to pass. It is “safe” not only because it helps keep us safe from harm, but, with its heavy metal door and large metal sheets covering the windows, it also feels like a safe in which to keep valuables. We feel protected here. But we are restless. This first weekend was eye opening for us. It gave us a glimpse of at least one hard aspect of this post: the compound we live in is our home and it is sheltered, but it is also our prison – the proverbial “gilded cage.” Part of the problem is that we do not yet have our car. There are rumors it is close – perhaps even at customs in Kinshasa, but that means nothing until we have the official word that it has been released and will be delivered back to us. Without a car we are either reliant on others, or stuck in our compound. B has been getting a ride to and from work everyday with a woman he works with, and our sponsors have very kindly taken us out for a tour of the town, lunch at a lovely patisserie and picked us up and taken us over to their place (which is right next door to our soon-to-be house) for a Sunday afternoon Happy Hour. But for C and me, once B leaves, the day stretches before us within the confines of our apartment and the guarded walls of the building.

In both Charlotte and Arlington our weekend mornings were full of conversations like this:

“What do you want to do today?”

“I dunno. Why don’t we walk down to Elizabth/Plaza-Midwood/Clarendon and take the dog to the dog park, then we can swing by the kid park and then have lunch somewhere?”

We left at our leisure. I went to Target for “a couple of things” (and left with dozens of things). B “ran” to Home Depot. We took C to the library, birthday parties, the ice cream store. This is a very real freedom of living in the U.S., Canada and other first world countries that I think most of us forget: the freedom to MOVE. Wherever and whenever we feel the urge to do so. And we can move by foot, by car (with the windows rolled down), by subway or by bike.



That freedom is, for the most part, denied to us here. Sunday afternoon, when we joined our sponsors (and soon-to-be neighbors) for cocktails, B and I left their compound (called the GB) on foot. Immediately next door to GB is Shoprite – a large, Western-feeling grocery store. I forgot to buy ketchup and mustard when our sponsor took me shopping on Friday and in our house of chicken nuggets and sandwiches that sin had to be rectified.

The GB guards opened the big metal gates for us and B and I stepped through onto the dusty dirt “sidewalk.” We walked the 500 feet between the GB and Shoprite and I felt giddy. Just not being dependent on someone else to get me from place A to place B was freeing. We didn’t linger (though B did marvel at the relative cheapness of the alcohol and the relative expense of the broccoli), but just the knowledge that when we move into the GB I will have some small freedom of movement – even if it is just walking to the grocery store – made me happy.

When I was young we didn’t have the internet to occupy us. At my parents’ lake house we didn’t have cable, only an old VCR and a few movies. We played games. We did puzzles. We read books. I am hoping that coupled with some more freedom than we have now, we can also re-learn the art of occupation that does not involve electronic games, on-demand videos, and unnecessary trips to Target just to fight boredom.

In our shipments I’ve packed games and puzzles and crafts (though B may never be coaxed into doing to any crafts…). I have more than a dozen books I haven’t had time to read. I’d like to master the art of making a bagel, ice cream and dinner. I want to make C some clothes out of the amazing fabrics that surround us here.

And I want to learn to appreciate the freedom and privilege it is to open my front door and walk out into the world without a guard, barbed wire and a gate protecting me.