Monday, October 31, 2011

Things I've Liked on the Internet Recently

Five fairly ridiculous international borders
Amazing miniatures
Wittiest comebacks of all time. I'm especially fond of #3
Fabulous words English needs to steal
Emergency Teddy Bear. Everyone needs one, though I'd probably swap the vodka for bourbon, the cigarettes for granola bars, and The Catcher in the Rye for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Speaking of which, it really does need a towel.
Complementary flavors, in handy flavor tree form. I should wallpaper my kitchen with these.
Yes, you really do love your iPhone, and if I had one I'd love it too.
Anthropomorphic taxidermy, for fun and profit.

Hey, it's the '90s!

IT'S THE 90S! from Everything Is Terrible! on Vimeo.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Presidential Present

On Thursday I met His Excellency, President Alpha Conde. We had shaken hands once before but this time I was tagging along with the Ambassador and we were actually formally introduced. And I got a souvenir: a can of store-brand maple syrup. The President had just returned from Canada and was apparently much taken with its sticky sweetness so he brought a bunch home to pass around. We diplomatically refrained from telling him the maple syrup is better in Vermont.

I will now make myself a double-maple brunch: Presidential Pancakes and the Jimmy Dean maple breakfast sausage a coworker so thoughtfully brought back from DC. EPIC WIN.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

A while ago I was in the car on the way downtown to a meeting, staring out the window, letting my mind wander, when I saw something so unexpected I did a double-take. What I saw, which I found so unbelievable I had to look again to be sure, was a white guy driving a black guy around. And almost as soon as I took that second look I realized the assumption underlying it, and I was ashamed.

In the States that would never have happened. Almost no one at home has a driver, certainly not enough to make a racial stereotype about it. The Driving Miss Daisy days are long over. A white guy and a black guy in a car are friends or colleagues or dating or married or whatever. In Guinea they're a white guy and his driver, or so my subconscious tells me anyway.

The privilege that comes with being in the white majority in America is nothing next to the privilege that comes from being in the white minority in Guinea. It only takes a sideways glance to mark me as someone foreign, probably well educated, by Guinean standards filthy rich, and possibly somewhat important. There are rich, educated, important Guineans too of course - many who are much more of all three of those things than I am - but they don't have it emblazoned on their face like I do. And apparently like every other white person in Conakry does, because now I'm seeing it too.

The human mind is a great generalizer, a tremendous pattern-finder (or pattern-maker). I find it a little disturbing how quickly and thoroughly mine has picked up on the patterns of my new home. I'm certainly not about to generalize myself into taking up the white man's burden or joining the Klan, but it makes it a little more clear to me how those sorts of ideas take root.

By the way, what did I see on that second look? It turns out they were in a right-hand drive car; the black guy was driving after all. That did not make me feel any better.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Routine

Yeah, I know. I've been a bad blogger lately. It's not that there hasn't been anything going on - there has - but nothing that fits into a clever little anecdote. Our desk officer was here for a visit and stayed with me, so we went to meetings and watched movies and played Wii for a week. It was nice to have a guest. Things seem to be humming along fine at work, lots of interesting meetings on mining and labor unions and the like. The weather has been more reliably sunny as of late so I've been spending more time at the pool. I made chili and cornbread for dinner last night and it was very tasty. You know, life.

I'm starting to really get excited about my winter R&R - Houston for Christmas and Vegas for New Year's. Before I came out here people told me the key to surviving Conakry was to get out of town often. I scoffed at this a little, because I couldn't imagine that it could be so terrible. Now I believe it, not because Conakry is so terrible, but because it's getting a little humdrum. A change of scenery may be in order. Perhaps a weekend trip to Freetown or Banjul. That would give me something to blog about.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Princess

Last week the fine folks at OverthinkingIt.com - a glorious website that takes pop culture way, way too seriously - hosted a Disney week, in which we learned that Beauty and the Beast is really about schizophrenia and class conflict, that Aladdin is an Orientalist-tinged tale glorifying inept absolute monarchies, and that Sebastian is a traitor to his Jamaican origins. However, my favorite piece was the one that argued that Disney's most positive female character was not any of the myriad Disney Princesses but Miss Bianca, musine heroine of The Rescuers. I strongly recommend that you read the whole thing, but here's an excerpt I especially enjoyed:

"Miss Bianca is a bit materialistic, a bit heteronormative, and yes, she is a mouse that wears fur (which is badass as well as creepy, if you ask me, but nobody did), but she is pretty much the awesomest person/mouse ever. Calling her to task for caring for enjoying luxury seems inappropriate given her life of sacrifice and the huge risks she so casually makes on behalf of the people who need her. She seems virtually fearless in the face of near-certain death (until actual certain death comes around, then she gets a little scared), and inspires courage and hope in all around her.

As so many, she too has a stupid love-plot where she sells herself a little short (heh mice) for a schlubby janitor. But she’s always the high-status person in the relationship, and she does seem to actually like him, so I’m not so sure it’s quite so bad to engage in some relationship choreography. Oh, and he also turns out to be the Will Hunting of janitors-turned-rescue commandos, so maybe she is just a good judge of character.

Next to Miss Bianca, the seriousness and scale of the Disney Princesses seems way off. You want to be Mulan, you play soccer as well as the boys. You want to be Belle, you read a lot and maybe marry somebody your friends don’t like. You want to be Miss Bianca, you take the foreign service exam and go on to be Secretary of State."


YES. I fully admit that Miss Bianca is both classier and badassier than I am, but I am pleased to know that I am well on the way to emulating the coolest cartoon mouse ever.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Last night I had a problem. I got home from a very long day at work and needed to bake a cake, but I didn't have enough butter. In Guinea there is no 7-11 on the corner, no 24-hour pharmacy with an emergency grocery section. But I have neighbors! Neighbors I can call who will turn up at my house less than five minutes later with a block of butter in hand. How novel! How delightful!

In DC I lived in a sprawling apartment complex full of students and other yuppies. Or at least that's what they looked like when I passed them in the halls, since I didn't actually know any of them. I laid eyes on my immediate neighbors perhaps three to five times each before they moved out and were replaced by another equally anonymous but slightly different new occupant. I never knew any of their names and would not have recognized them at a restaurant or on the Metro.

But I didn't really *need* my neighbors in DC either. If I had to have butter, even at 4 o'clock in the morning, I could have it in the space of ten minutes from my friendly local convenience store. Other life needs, material or otherwise, could be handled with similar ease and expediency by enterprising participants in the local economy or my network of friends and acquaintances.

In Guinea things are a little different, and when you need a cup of sugar or whatever it's nice to have a neighbor to turn to.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Tongue-Tied and Twisted

Yesterday was a rather trying day. I attended a detailed hour-long presentation on Guinea's offshore geology and oil prospects, in French, followed by a fairly technical two-and-a-half-hour meeting on Guinea's new mining code, also in French. I felt like I was doing really well following it all, keeping up. And then at the end of the mining meeting we went around the table and gave our impressions. While the others were taking their turns I put together something relatively coherent and fluid to say, but once eight pairs of eyes were locked on me it was suddenly all gone. I fumbled around and came up with something, but it wasn't quite what I wanted and made me sound like an autistic child rather than the capable professional I want people to think I am. Sigh.

I think I can say without too much undue self-flattery that my English is very good, certainly above average. I'm used to having a vast army of words at my beck and call, to wield with surgical precision or poetic allusion as the situation requires. In French I don't have anything close to that, and it's so frustrating to struggle so hard to express myself and end up with such disappointing results.

Frustrating and humiliating. Everyone else in that room was at least functionally bilingual; many spoke three or four or five languages well. At this point I'm at about one and a half. Maybe. If I'm still having this kind of difficulty with French - a relatively simple language I've been studying in fits and starts since I was SEVEN - what hope do I have for my future tours where I may have to pull together a much more difficult language from scratch in a matter of months? Why is what seems so easy for other people so hard for me?

Yestrday was also trying because the traffic was so bad on the way back from the mining meeting that it took two hours to get home. But at least I could spend that part of the day in sweet silence.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Seasons

October. Crisp fall air. Leaves changing colors. Apples and squash at the farmers' market. Boots and sweaters. Soups and stews.

Not so much. This afternoon as I floated in my pool with a cold beverage and gloried in the sunshine and the gentle breeze in the coconut palms, did I feel a tiny smidge of sadness to be missing out on scarves and apple picking? Sure I did. After five years in DC I'd come to enjoy the annual autumnal atmospherics, and I know it will be at minimum two more years before I see them again. But before the shadow of loss could cast a pall over my lovely lazy afternoon I remembered something else: winter. I know there will be a similar afternoon in February (or several) when I lie back in my pool float and thank my lucky stars I'm in the tropics. That may be worth missing out on a fall or two.