Monday, March 21, 2011

coping in Paris

I didn’t attend the parting debriefing – the session where the Cross Cultural Solutions Ghana director talked to the group about our volunteer efforts in Hohoe. I was, at the time, finalizing the sale of my condo at the village Internet Café.

Perhaps I missed, therefore, the discussion that surely must have taken place about reentry issues that arise for returning volunteers. I’ve heard about such issues for Peace Corps volunteers, but I thought – I’m not going to become undone after a week in Hohoe. Peace Corps is for two years. That's a jolt. Hohoe time was one short week (oh, but we all learned so much!)...

But it became clear the minute I stepped off the plane in Amsterdam (my first stop after Ghana), then Paris, that I was going to have issues with suddenly stepping into affluence.

I love Paris more than any other city on the planet. It is my balm against a rocky world. I feel content just watching people attend to daily life there. Their demeanor always has elements of confident joy, perhaps indulgence – yes, that, but still, when I need a break, joy is a good thing to touch and admire.

But the very fact that Parisians – at least the ones in city center – are so content drove me nuts today. How can it be that Porsha, my enthusiastic student at Happy Kids, will have none of the freedom of play that these kids (my daughters too, indeed, all kids born in places where schools are good and there is indoor plumbing) have from day one?

Removal of children from their impoverished surroundings, even from orphanages such as Happy Kids and sending them far away is not, in most instances, the way to go. I have always weighed in class, at a very theoretical level, the pros and cons of international adoption. And now, as I see the richness of the culture of Ghana, plucking kids from a way of life that is so full of Ghanaian custom and placing them in a customary vacuum on the other side of the ocean gives me even greater pause.

I could not live in Ghana permanently. Ever. It’s too different, too embedded in religion, too traditional -- everything that I am not. For Ghanaian kids coming to America, the same must surely be true: we’re too different. And what about being black? In Ghana, minority status comes not with being of color but being of no color. Meaning being white.

Well, yes, but the opportunity in the America! Surely it is better to go on to study and eventually land a job that pays decent wages and allows you to travel freely – surely all that is better? I don’t know. Who am I to say.

Darn that Paris! It’s always so beautiful! And I have a near perfect March day here. Happy spring indeed!

I walk and walk and walk some more. Six hours of walking – from the eastern fringes to the west and back. From Luxembourg to Eiffel, to Les Champs and the Louvre, to Pompidou, Marais, Bastille, Notre Dame, hoping that by the end of this energetic spin, life would feel good again.

And in fact, it happened before the end of the walk. I pause to take a photo of flowers in a flower shop in the Marais (I took only a couple dozen photos, and most I will post here in a minute). The shop owner – a gaunt, pleasant looking fellow came rushing to me. Madame, madame, what are you doing? I’m used to the occasional shopkeeper who is opposed to photos. I’m sorry – I tell him. I should have asked. (That’s a canned response. Typically I do not ask for permission in public spaces.) He goes into a French rant: these flowers of mine they are beautifully presented (they are actually just thrown into buckets)! I am an artist! I cannot have my art stolen from me. I nod and put my camera away. But he slaps me on the back and bursts out laughing. I’m just having fun, Madame! Go ahead, take your photos! I was not serious!

It was a moment of humor and camaraderie and it made me laugh.

The cloud lifted. I began to relax.

Okay, photos form “une grande promenade” – the walk through Paris. I apologize for the postcardy nature of the beast. Virtually the only time I took out my camera was when I approached a “major sight.” Beats me why. Oh, and children. French children who live with families, not in orphanages, children who play on Sundays and then eat big meals with family, then take a parent’s hand and walk to school Monday.

Sigh, it was a complicated day.

first minutes in Paris are always at the Luxembourg Gardens

a Sunday family walk... sigh...

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spring in Paris comes at the end of March

the good life: children playing with boats

idle time

THE flowers

...and cakes

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and the sky turns golden

then mango orange... the most beautiful sunset I'd seen here...

Monday morning. My flight leaves after noon. I take a quick jaunt to the food halls of Bon Marche, pausing for an espresso, watching the kids go off to school (there are no strollers in Ghana; from back sling to fend for yourself, kid)...


I want to pick up a few jars of mustard. Weird, I know, but I love their mustard with mushrooms and I can find it nowhere else. It’s cheap and wonderful for a lazy person who cannot be bothered to make sauces for a meat dish.

At the Food Halls I walk the aisles admiring all the wonderful foods that are for sale. It’s a splendid place of cheeses and fruits and olive oils, of goose livers, smoked salmon and stewed duck. And then I come to the shelves of chocolate. And I see this:

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Ghana chocolate. Oh yes. I know Ghana produces superb cocoa. At the Internet Café I routinely listened to commercials on how to keep the mistletoe from attacking your cocoa trees. There is a government office (The Cocoa Board) devoted to cocoa production even in remote Hohoe.

The trouble is that most kids in Hohoe never get to taste chocolate. The families harvest cocoa and out it goes to the west. It reminds me of post-war Poland: apparently we made great ham: Polish ham was on the shelves of many American markets. But we could never buy any of it back home.

The Paris skies are brilliant. Blue as can be. I pull my wee suitcase and sling the bag full of Ghanaian fabric up past the Luxembourg Gardens and take the train to the airport. I’ll be home tonight.