April fish


I have been enjoying not only being back in my own apartment, but also not as highly scheduled as I was last week during the in-service training.

Since the in-service was held during spring break for teachers, there were a lot of them floating around the region, visiting each other and hanging out. When we returned to Nouakchott from Boghé, I had one in tow - Karl, a first-time visitor to Château Jay.

I made a new vat of soup. Restaurants may have a soup du jour. At the Château, though, it is soup de la semaine because I make enough to last a week. That way, it's always easy to heat up a quick meal, either for myself or for any number of visitors. It's a strategy that I found to be convenient in San Francisco, and one that is easy to use here, especially since I am one of the relatively few PCVs who cooks for himself and has a refrigerator.

The last time I made soup (with beets and carrots, very red and orange!) Babah asked if I could make a potato soup. Why not? The Château staff is very accommodating to its loyal clientele.This week's soup has onions and garlic sautéed in olive oil, a dozen green peppers from the garden of my Boghé host family from last weekend, about a kilo of potatoes, carrots, cabbage, white beans, and brown rice.

When I was walking home with the ingredients on Sunday, the day I got back to town, I ran into Babah and Mamadou. I showed Babah that I had purchased the potatoes for "his" soup, and invited them to dinner the next night.

During the day on Monday, the guest list grew as word got out that soup was on at the Château. Before Monday I'd have said that I wanted to limit a dinner to six people because I have only six chairs, six bowls, and six soup spoons. But it seemed like there was no way I was going to be able to control the size of this crowd, as word of mouth spread to other Volunteers.

In addition to the soup bowls, I have six plates which are not entirely flat, so there is enough of a depression for soup. Then, of course, there are always teaspoons. As long as we were going to make adjustments, I realized that not everyone had to sit at the table, as there was plenty of floor seating on the matalas.

First, Karl asked if it would be all right to invite Audrey. Then Audrey called from the bureau to say that Mark H., Alice, and Lisa J. were in the computer room, so could they come, too? Then, I got a call from Madge, whom I hadn't even seen that day, asking if she could come with Natalie E., who was staying at her house. Throw in Babah and Ismail, and you've got a pretty full house there - eight PCVs and two Mauritanians.

Babah and Ismail speak Hassaniya and Pulaar in addition to French, so the PCVs were able to converse in several of the languages with them. Babah and Ismail were very impressed at the level of proficiency of these Volunteers who have been in-country for only nine months.

On Wednesday morning, Karl moved along, to continue his vacation in Rosso; Annika and Erin P. moved in. Mauritanian dinner time is much later than American. (It is not unusual for them to eat at 9:30 at night, which is my bedtime!) But Babah called while I was getting ready to serve up the soup, and he came along to join us, as did Will, a Nouakchott Volunteer.

Annika, Erin, Will, and I had plans to go to the home of a couple that works at the American embassy. They were having their first book exchange evening. Realizing that it would be impossible to get a book club started here because it would be difficult for everyone to get copies of the same book, Dia and Justin came up with the idea of an exchange instead, giving people an opportunity to trade books that they did not want any longer.

We got a little delayed before setting out for the book exchange, though, as Will locked the bathroom door behind himself and he could not get out. Fortunately, there is a small window on the back wall of the bathroom, and this window, though it does not open to the outside, does open into a small storage area adjacent to the kitchen. I was able to hand Will the screwdrivers that he needed in order to undo the door handle and let himself out.

We enjoyed the book exchange, finding a few new books to read, and then returned to the Château, picking up ice cream on the way home. Then Will traded the now-broken lock on the bathroom door with one that was on a living room door - a lock that I never need to use.

Banking and shopping here are nowhere near as customer-friendly as they are in the United States, but I have just found a way to make things a little easier.

I have to pay my rent in cash on the first of the month. That's 50,000 ouguiya, which I can get either by waiting in a long line at the bank or from the ATM that was installed in October. I was told when I got the ATM card that I would be allowed to withdraw a maximum of 50,000 ouguiya a week, but when I went to withdraw the money for the rent during the last two months, the machine limited the withdrawal to 40,000. How, then, could I get the additional cash I needed for rent and daily expenses without waiting in that long line?

At the super marché where I shop, I pay my bill at the end of each month, and it is one of the few businesses here that accepts checks, which is a tremendous amenity. This time, I thought I would try an option that is very familiar back at home: I asked if I could write the check for 10,000 ouguiya over the cost of my bill, and the assistant manager said yes! Cash back after writing a check - one of those little things I used to take for granted.

April Fools Day has its local variation here, though it is not a Mauritanian custom. It was brought over by the French in the form of Poisson d'avril (April fish). The observation of the day has its roots going back to 1562, with the reformation of the calendar by Pope Gregory XIII (the Gregorian calendar). Up until that time, the end of the year was celebrated for a week, from the 25th of March to the 1st of April. On the first day of April, it was the custom of people to exchange gifts.

In 1564, Charles IX, king of France, decided to follow the Pope's lead and changed the date of the beginning of the new year in France to the 1st of January, effective in 1565. News travelled slowly in those days, and when April began in 1565, some people were a bit behind the times. People who were not up-to-date with the new calendar were considered to be foolish. As for the giving of gifts, since it wasn't the real beginning of the year any longer, the gifts were not real either. Hence, gag gifts that have evolved into practical jokes.

Fishing was not allowed during April in France because it was the time that the fish reproduced. Some people decided to play a joke on the fishermen by throwing herrings into the river and calling, "Poisson d'avril," which is one story about how the day came to be so-called in France.

A local resident who was born in Mauritius, raised in Nouakchott, and whose mother works at the American embassy, had an April Fools Day party at her house - a fun gathering and a way to socialize with a variety of people.

I told my friend Mamouni that I went to an April Fools party, and at whose house it was held. His response was, "Then that is not a real party for Poisson d'avril." When I asked him why not, he said that in order for it to be a real Poisson d'avril party, when we showed up at the house it would have been empty, and the joke would have been on us - that we had been invited to a party that was not there.

At the party I ran into Jean-Jacques, who works in the French section at one of the agencies where I work. I hadn't seen him for several months because my work has been at different places. He is divorced, with two grown daughters. He told me in late November that he had just become a father again, the issue of a relationship he has with a local woman. For reasons that had nothing to do with me, he gave his son "Jay" as one of his middle names.

When I saw Jean-Jacques at the party, I asked him how his son was doing. I was not prepared for the answer: "Il est mort." (He died.) Infant and child mortality here is much higher than in developed countries - a sad statistic that is, unfortunately, not an April Fools joke.

The second-year Volunteers just got back from their COS (Close of Service) conference. Since they were in town, the education Volunteers in that group - they are the ones who put together the Lesson Plans that Work book - met for an afternoon and dinner at my house so that we could find places in the prescribed syllabus where these lessons could fit. They are going to be spending the next few days making revisions to their work, with an eye toward making it compatible with the syllabus. In return, Kristen and I will be able to lift sample lessons to include in the teachers' editions of the new textbooks we are writing.

I leave today for my first vacation. Getting ready to leave town is so much the same as it always has been: filing papers away, making sure I have everything I need for the trip, completing tasks that can't wait until I get home, and eating up all the perishable food - things like that.

First I am flying to Dakar, Senegal. It's a relatively easy place to get to, so I will not be spending too much time there at the beginning of the trip, as my primary destination is Cape Verde, the nation of nine main islands off the west coast of Afirca. It is a former Portuguese colony and homeland of singer Caesaria Evora, who is probably the best-known Cape Verdian internationally. (Can you name another? I can't.)

I am starting in Dakar during the day of the first Passover seder because I had some Internet information that there is a small Jewish population in Dakar. I was hoping that there would be a community seder that I could to attend. I was in touch via e-mail with the Second Secretary at the Israeli embassy, who told me that the only seder he knows of is a small one, only for embassy staff and their families.

I will do my best to look for ways to use e-mail and post to the website while I am traveling.