Friday, 22 November 2013

The idiosyncrasies of life in Algeria

The grounds of the Maillot hospital, Bab El Oued
The children all settled down to life in Algeria in time, each according to his or her personality and age.  We had to leave my eldest daughter in England to finish her studies in the English curriculum, and so I had an 11 year old son, 8 year old daughter, 5 year old son and a 2 year old son.  The two youngest were outside with the rest of the hoi polloi within a very short time of our arrival, and I remember looking out the kitchen window one day to see my 5 year old standing watching something with the arm of a newly acquired friend draped across his shoulders very nonchalantly.   This was something that really struck me immediately in Algeria… how very touchy feely the children were with each other.  It’s very common to see women, young and old, or young men and boys walking along arm in arm, or even holding hands, in the most innocent manner.  But for my 8 year old and 5 year old, sometimes this got to be too much when it came to the older generation.  It was rather overwhelming for them, having come from a quiet, nuclear unit, to having aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbours constantly bombarding them with hugs, kisses and questions.  They often retreated to the safety of our apartment to try and find some quiet time to recoup their equilibrium.  I remember once having to coax my 5 year old to come out from the bedroom in my mother-in-law’s home to meet my husband’s cousin, his wife and his son who was around the same age.  He eventually only came out as long as I promised to hold his hand, and that he could go back into the bedroom as soon as he had kissed the cousin and his wife.  He sat beside me for a little while, and before too long he was sitting in the corner with the other little boy giggling and playing away quite happily. A few months after our arrival our 8 year old daughter contracted chicken pox and had to stay indoors for some time until she had recovered.  The first day that she ventured out after her illness, I heard a lot of screaming and when I rushed to the window it was to find all her friends gathered around her in excitement and happiness to have her out playing again.

The children picked up the language very quickly especially as my husband had spoken to them  in derja from when they were born, and they had mixed with a lot of his friends who had also had spoken it with them.  One of my most amusing memories was from the days before my children had started school, lying in bed and listening to the neighbourhood children passing by the window on their way to school, singing ‘eenie, meanie, minee, mo,….’ with the ‘catch a tiger by the toe’ totally lost in their own made up mumbo jumbo!  So nice, I thought smugly to myself, to see my children having an influence on the local children instead of the other way round!

It took a while to become accustomed to the seasonal fruit and vegetables in the market, to the fact that the butcher sold only meat and not chicken (you had to go to a separate shop to buy chicken and eggs, and often couscous and richta also), and that the local shops sold some items, normally found in packets in the UK, individually e.g. you could buy a tray of 30 eggs or just one, or one sweet or 10, one roll of toilet paper or a pack of two or more, not to mention all the foods you couldn’t buy, important foods like Cadbury’s Chocolate for instance (!) and of course...... the money.  For me the local currency was, and in many ways still is, a total minefield.  My son and I went to buy a jar of instant coffee and I had to tell him to tell the shopkeeper that I just didn’t have enough money when he said that it cost 1,500 dinars, while silently screaming at the high price.  The shopkeeper then took out a 100 dinars note and 50 dinar coin and said this was the price.  Why couldn’t he have said that in the first place?  The French may well have left Algeria 40 years previously but they had left their legacy of the centimes in place so when a person quoted one price, he or she actually meant another….. for me it epitomized the Algerian society as a whole! 

I also discovered that my husband’s family didn’t always know where I could find some of the foods to which I was accustomed.  I was told that you couldn’t buy cheddar cheese, and, when I found it in a small supermarket not too far from my mother-in-law’s I realized that it was up to myself to look around and see what I could find.  To be honest, if someone in England asked me where they could find the proper couscous (not the pathetic imitation boil-in-a-bag that no self respecting Algerian woman would allow to cross the threshold of her home), I would not have been able to help them as I only cooked it rarely and when I did it was whatever I had brought back from Algeria with me.  So if they didn’t cook with or use it they would not necessarily know where to find it.  But you had to love these people who thought nothing of days and days of torrential rain, but just rolled up their trouser legs and walked in the pools of water in their flip-flops, and how could you not love them when you saw children walking to the shops in the morning in their pyjamas, and young men who thought nothing of popping out to the shops in their sister’s neon pink flip-flops. 
A street in Bab El Oued, Algiers

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