Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The grass is always greener...

We expatriates are often asked by our more sedentary friends what we miss the most when we are away for so long. Here it is, in a nutshell:

And of course the whole gamut of culture – cinema, festivals, live music, books, newspapers, exhibitions, theatre… We save a fortune whilst we are away, and the minute we are back we immediately spend it all on concerts, organic food and intensive shopping. It’s a great moment to grasp – the feeling of extreme excitement and eager anticipation as you first set foot in a developed country after months away. But it’s surprising how quickly it passes, how quickly you forget to savour the simple pleasure of rocket salad with shavings of parmesan cheese, to stop and listen to the free jazz concert in the park on your way home from work, to make a detour by the museum…

Well, for our sake out here I hope you’re enjoying the summer, and in the meantime we’ll enjoy the goodies I brought back from South Africa.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Leaps and bounds

Well, France may or may not make it past Brazil, but tonight I find myself alone with the tv in a posh hotel room in South Africa, jumping up and down, waving my arms high above my head in pride and glee, trying not to cheer too loudly.

For the first half of the game, I tried to pretend I didn’t care, and watched half-heartedly whilst packing my bags. By the second half, however, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, nervously rocking back and forth and mumbling incoherently into the pillow clutched tightly to my chest. What is it about the football World Cup that invariably makes people revert to bare nationalism?

Speaking of which, I would like to thank my compatriots and the French press for making it so patently clear that they did not believe France had a chance in hell of beating Spain, and thus ironically helping France win this game. I firmly believe that French performance, in football and elsewhere, is inversely proportional to expectations. Perhaps this explains why we are a nation of cynics?

So please, let the predictions be that Brazil will be curtains for France, let’s not mention 1998, or if we do let’s remember that the team was on rather better form back then, not to mention considerably younger. There’s always time to be pleasantly surprised.

(Note: Photo courtesy of BBC News website)

Friday, June 23, 2006

A day in the life of...

Just in case you think my life is just one adventure after the other, here is the programme for the supposedly ‘operational’ briefing I attended these last two days:


0730 Mise en place terminée
Det d’honneurs

0830 Arrivée des participants

0900 Arrivée des invités

0930 Arrivée de Monsieur le Président (pas de la République !)
Accueil et honneurs

1000 Arrivée de son Excellence Monsieur le Ministre
Accueil, honneurs et installation
Hymne national

1020 Présentation du programme par le Coordonnateur National

1030 Mot de bienvenue par Monsieur le Président

1045 Allocution du Représentant Spécial des Nations Unies

1105 Discours d’ouverture par le Ministre

1125 Mot du Président de la CEI

1145 Intervention du Coordonnateur National

1200 à 1400 Pause cocktail (Phew !)

Then we actually got to do some real work from 2pm to 4.30pm.


More real-ish work in the morning

1200 Suspension des travaux

1300 Mise en place terminée, Det honneur

1400 Mise en place terminée des participants

1415 Arrivée des invités et autres personnalité de marque

1430 Arrivée du Président (toujours pas de la République)

1500 Discours de clôture par le Ministre
Hymne national

1600 Cocktail

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Earth from the sky

Kinshasa is finally on the map for users of Google Earth! Okay, so if I’m honest, Kinshasa from the sky looks like a horrible, sprawling metropolis. But if you zoom in close enough, you start to see the trees – sandwiched as they are between the myriad houses. More to the point, try to spot the golf course near the river, with a cemetery right next to it. We live a couple of blocks west (I don’t think F. would approve of my giving out the exact coordinates on Internet, but happy to send them to those who wish). If you scroll southeast from there, you should find the stadium – Kinshasa’s pride and joy. And beyond that (to the south), is “la Cité”, aka the real world. One part of it is commonly known as “Chine populaire”, and seen from this angle it’s easy to understand why!

Not that exciting, really, but I’m still a novice to Google Earth, and therefore feel a novice’s enthusiasm. For instance, with a few clicks of the mouse sitting here in Kinshasa, I discovered that there is a new zebra crossing on the street where my parents live and where I grew up – pretty cool, eh?!

Different strokes

Here is a joke told by an African colleague of mine at lunch the other day:

“There’s this French woman, right, and she is saving to buy her mother’s flat!”

Roars of laughter from the African contingent; indulgent half-smiles and bemused looks from the westerners amongst us who are still patiently waiting for the punch line. Another Ethiopian colleague managed to stop laughing just long enough to point out that only the Africans found this amusing, and this caused even more hilarity.

I suppose the concept of buying back your own mother’s flat is as grotesque to Africans as having to pay the hospital to take your newborn baby home with you is to us (a regular occurrence in Armenia, as elsewhere I’m sure).

“Enrichissons-nous de nos différences”, wrote (or said) Paul Valéry. Also, incidentally, my high school’s motto.


Thursday, June 15, 2006

Um Bongo

Way down deep in the middle of the Congo,
a hippo took an apricot, a guava and a mango.
He stuck it with the others, and he danced a dainty tango.
The rhino said, "I know, we'll call it Um Bongo",
Um Bongo, Um Bongo, they drink it in the Congo.
The python picked the passion fruit, the marmoset the mandarin.
The parrot painted packets, that the whole caboodle landed in.

(Thanks to Nick F., my guide to 1980s English pop culture. Needless to say, it was all a shameless advertisement ploy – I’ve never seen this Um Bongo drink here or elsewhere!)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Lubumbashi KFC

Speaking of heroes and chicken, here is a picture of Lubumbashi’s very own KFC, where I admit I did eat in a moment of weakness – hey, it was right next to the hotel!

Saturday, June 10, 2006


As I prepared to leave the office at dawn on Wednesday morning, having gone in to print a couple of documents I’d worked on late the previous night before catching a flight to Lubumbashi at 9am, the parting words from the project manager were: “Remember – better a live chicken than a dead hero.” Fair advice from a man who, in an effort to regain his rapidly deteriorating sanity, has decided, a month away from the elections for which he has worked so hard, not to renew his contract and instead to splash out on centre court seats at Wimbledon. Yes, it will leave the project in a fix, but the truth is I wish I had the assurance to walk away like that, and the self-awareness to know when it’s all taking too much of a toll.

As I found myself midmorning that same day onto my fourth pack of Kleenexes and my seventy-fourth sneeze of the day; and as I realised that this was my fourth big cold in eight weeks – not to mention that the sniffling and sneezing never really go away anymore – I wondered whether maybe this was it. I have irregular blasts of insuppressible energy – notably after my aerobics class – but the truth is I have been feeling generally rundown and/or irritable for a while now.

But the other truth is, I don’t want to give up on the DRC. I want to stop minding the daily frustrations of life here (top of the list: indestructible mosquitoes, kamikaze minibuses, unfriendly waiters, interminable meetings and inflated egos) and better enjoy the small luxuries: walking to work, popping home to enjoy a lunch prepared for us by the housekeeper (yes, yes!), regular tennis, Sunday movies in a friend’s backyard, and of course the unforgettable river outings. I want to stop being ill every time I go on mission to the interior, and rekindle the exhilaration I felt during my first visits. And I definitely, definitely want to be here for the elections.

So the short version is, I won’t be in London for Wimbledon, but I may just ‘disappear’ my laptop, give up on working evenings and week-ends altogether, and get addicted to the World Cup instead. I know someone who would have no objections.

Saturday, June 03, 2006


For some obscure reason, Blogger wouldn’t let me attach this photo to yesterday’s post, relevant as it was. In a spirit of rebellion against technology’s arbitrary discriminations, I decided to post it today, irrelevant as it is.

Here is a quote about persistence which I found in an airplane magazine when I was ten, copied out for my grand-father on fancy paper in pretty cursive, and which has been sitting, framed, in his office ever since. Unfortunately, I no longer really like it:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Friday, June 02, 2006


Damn this week went by so fast!

This is usually my favourite time of year back in Europe, but I hear that it’s uncharacteristically cold at the moment, that people are digging out their portable heaters. This from a friend in Paris, who may herself be uncharacteristically sensitive to the cold…

So about this unexpected protrusion of land in southeast DRC… The answer, obscurely, is tea! I am told, quite seriously, that every day at precisely 4pm all the English officials at the border post between the Congo and the Zambia would simultaneously retire for their afternoon tea, leaving the post unattended. Consequently, every day at 4pm the Belgians would discreetly shift the post a few meters southeast. Over the years, the meters turned to kilometres, until eventually the Congo had an extra 200 km.

According to some quick mental arithmetic (undoubtedly flawed – mental arithmetic is not my forte), this would mean that the Belgians shifted the border post by over 5m every day, unnoticed by the English. It makes one wonder what the English put in their tea back then!

I did specify, in phrasing the quiz question, “according to my Congolese sources”.

Now at the risk of dealing an unforgivable blow to the Entente Cordiale, guess what else I found out about tea recently? It was introduced to Europe by… the French!

“It's a little known fact, but after its introduction to Europe in the 17th century tea was tremendously popular in France. It first arrived in Paris in 1636 (22 years before it appeared in England!) and quickly became popular among the aristocracy. (…) Madame de Sévigné also reported that it was a Frenchwoman, the Marquise de la Sablière, who initiated the fashion of adding milk to tea. (…) The English delighted in this "French touch" and immediately adopted it. (…) However, popularity among the upper classes may have been the kiss of death for tea in France. In 1789, (…) the king and queen had lost their heads and so had a goodly number of counts, dukes, and the like. Tea, a symbol of royalty, went the way of royalty. Tea's story was not over in France, however. Only 50 years after the Revolution, an Anglomania swept the country. Everything English was all the fashion and it again became stylish to take tea, often in the evening after dinner and accompanied by small pastries.”

(Extracts from an article in TeaMuse)

“There is a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment in a chest of tea.”

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letters and Social Aims