Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Life With the Graves

Yo friends:

How is everyone doing out there in the heartland? The new and improved Graves family is doing quite well these days, thank you very much. It took me how long to get a REAL job after fumfering around as an adjunct teacher for a couple of years, cursing George Dubya the whole time? A looooooong dreadful time. Well, Bintu goes into First African Hair Braiding Salon and five minutes later walks away with a job, and she isn't even legal yet. So if any of you need your hair braided, I can get you a real sweet deal on some micro braids.

You should see Bintu braid hair. I doubt that a machine could do it faster -- she can take three tiny strands of hair and zip, zip, zip it is woven together tight and pretty. She works with about six other Africans at the salon, all from West African nations close by Senegal and Sierra Leone. They all speak French, so Bintu gets to keep her French brushed up at all times now.

She has now been here a little more than two weeks and although on one hand she is adjusting rapidly to the changes in culture, in other ways she is perplexed by America and things American. All Africans coming to America for the first time are astounded at the obesity of Americans. Her first few days here she could scarcely believe her eyes. In fact I remember well a tall, portly African in Dakar and how Bintu kept elbowing me to look at how fat he was. By our standards the guy barely made the fat grade. We just watched Supersize This, the documentary film and Bintu also could barely believe all those things about McDonalds. Believe it or not the only McDonalds she and I have eaten is the cheap ice cream cone, which is actually pretty good. And not a calorie in it.

This weekend Bintu and yours truly watched Blood Sisters I and II and (I think) a film called Velo, all Nigerian low-budget flicks. We both laughed when at the end of Blood Sister II the lead actress hangs herself (she was wicked; she deserved it) and with tongue hanging grotesquely from her face, eyes bugging out, pale makeup, she blinks. Twice. This actress, whose name I forget, was very, very good and is apparently, according to Bintu, very famous in West Africa. In the film were two children, a girl and a smaller boy, who cry on cue better than ANY kids I have seen in any film, period.

Bintu and I still have much to do, much to learn, and much to adjust to. We have had a dickens of a time finding the foods she is used to and enjoys back in Africa. Bintu apparently has highly refined tastebuds, because she can taste a speck of sugar, garlic, or salt in anything. After looking and looking for "ground nuts" to make a paste with I discovered on the internet that ground nuts are nothing more than peanuts and that the paste she was referring to is peanut butter. She used the peanut butter I had on hand for a recipe for cassava leaf, the Sierra Leone national dish made with cassava leaf, rice, smoked fish, and other things, but considered the dish ruined because the peanut butter had sugar in it. So, we had to get some peanut butter with none of the additives.

She made some okra soup the other day and it is very much like okra and seafood gumbo. The big difference is that instead of slicing the okra into round bite sized bits she grinds them very finely and adds them to the stew. The soup is thick, tasty, slimy, and smoky from the smoked fish (an African fish that cost us $10.00 a pound at a specialty African market in Whitehaven). We have decided that in the future we will buy catfish and slow smoke it in my big smoker. I figure we may save about a thousand dollars if we do that.

I cooked my famous beer can chicken for her the other day and she liked it enough that she kept sneaking bites as it was smoking outside. True flattery for a chef you know. I also prepared my famous shrimp creole for her to try out and late one night she announced, "Eeze good. My 'usband is a good cook."

In case you are wondering we aren't legal just yet. We have a few things to do first, but it will be soon. Because Uncle Sam has sort of taken the romance out of this by giving us a specific timetable, we plan on making a bigger splash with this after the fact at a ceremony where we will repeat vows and have our friends in attendance. To get a social security number or green card we must be hitched first, and as is the case with everything in this country, you gotta pay out the ass for everything. Bintu was just fingerprinted in Dakar at the U.S. Embassy, but we have to pay $70 for her to be fingerprinted again. I hope all this makes George W. feel safter at night.

The other night when cruising midtown for something to eat I decided to get a bar-b-q from Top's. When we pulled off Madison onto the side street there were about six or seven he-she's parading up and down the street, picking up men some of whom, I am told, do not get it that it is not a woman they are picking up. Bintu thought it was the funniest thing ever. In fact, I thought she was going to crack up in Top's when one of the "girls" came and stood in line. I asked her what would happen if one of them was magically transported to Dakar. She said, "the children would follow them and annoy them by saying 'it's a man! It's a man! Go jigging!'" Go jigging means the equivalent of go find yourself some sex. I'm paraphrasing.

In the past I was always henpecked because I slept more than six hours a day. I always got shit when I took naps. Never again. Africans believe strongly that a body needs rest and cannot understand at all the American insistence on little sleep. They also cannot understand the American need to cram everything possible into a single day. All that go-go-go! Those of you who know me know I have met my true soul mate.

Bintu also reported a hilarious first encounter with some of the brothers in Memphis. Three of the African girls (including Bintu) decided to go to this place called Meezes Weener's Fried Cheeken and a couple of hip brothers decided to speak to these willowy beauties. The African girls refused to acknowledge their presence at all, even when the fellows fell in behind them to talk some more. The more they were ignored the more they tried until frustration and cursing set in. Bintu said that when the girls got back to the salon they "laughed and laughed at those stupid boys."

Bintu was feeling pretty low and homesick about a week ago and her homesickness and melancholy had me panicking and suffering acute anxiety myself. But a little bit of love solved the situation and we are about as happy as two people from opposite ends of the world and opposite cultures could be. We will be adjusting probably for a long time, but we both still feel truly blessed that a miracle of circumstances could bring us together as it has. My love affair with Africa is not over by any means either. Africa will be a prominent part of our lives in one way or the other from now on. Exactly how is anyone's guess.

Well, no one has hit me on my bicycle yet (in fact, I just gave Bintu her first driving lesson -- that was an eye-opening experience for both of us) and we are still living on Cowden. Bintu has fixed the house nicely and it has evidence of her tastes here and there, such as the beautiful batik bedspreads she brought with her. She has taken over our biggest closet (remember there is hardly any closet space in a house nearly a hundred years old) and made it her own private space. It is now her walk in closet and she has it tricked out to please herself.

Bintu laughingly told me last week that the girls in the shop were saying how lucky I am to have such a beautiful woman, and of course I have to agree. She tells me that frequently in Dakar taxis or cars of girls would pull up beside her and the girls would shout out "manneque, manneque" which in French, if I am spelling it correctly, means you are a beautiful model. The shop owner, Passy from Guinea, took up for me and said, "Yah, Beentu. You are lucky as well. Tom is a good man for you to have. A 'andsome mon."

Thank you Passy. That's all for now. More to come. Let me hear from you.


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