July 23, 2007

Distant Relations

While I’m on the topic of family and Paris, I should mention the rest of the family I meet there: my cousin Shannon, her husband Issa, and their children: Ahmad, 6, and Julien, 2. They’ve been living in Paris for the past year while Issa finishes his masters in International Relations at l’Institute Polytechnique. (It’s a program in conjunction with NYU, his home university). And since they have an ample apartment in the heart of Montmartre, they graciously offered to let us stay with them. And what an apartment it was! You can’t buy accommodation like this, or at least I can’t. You could see the Eiffel Tower’s light show out one side of the apartment and the dome of Sacré Ceour out the other. My parents and Kevin and I even had our own floor, which came in handy when the two year old threw tantrums.

Still, I was a little nervous at first about spending a week with a bunch of distant relatives I had never met before, but getting to know Shannon, Issa, and their children turned out the be the highlight of the week. They are, by far, most interesting relatives I have. Shannon teaches French and English as a Foreign Language at a public school in the Bronx and has all the sass that comes with such a job. And Issa, who is originally from Cameroon, will spend next year in Burundi working for an NGO. But before he went into International Development, he was worked as a trainer to Manhattan’s rich and famous, and he has all the stories that come with that job. He even did a stint as an amateur bodybuilder. He’s also belonged, at one time or another, to nearly every religion available in Western African – including Mormanism! (He subscribes to no religion at present.)

What most intrigued me, though, were their stories about meeting and falling in love in the Cameroonian bush. Issa had been teaching elementary school in a remote Pygmy village, when Shannon showed up to teach AIDS education for the Peace Corps. Apparently, when Shannon’s van first drove into the village, the Pygmies rushed up to Issa to tell him that his wife had finally arrived. “But I don’t have a wife,” he said. It was fate, I guess.

However, the Pygmies' superstition had its downside, too. After Shannon and Issa were married, the locals took to examining their shower run-off. They assumed that since Issa had married a white woman, he must really be a white man wearing black body paint. So they stood just behind the partition of Issa’s outdoor shower and watched the water for a change in color. (Although Issa is Cameroonian, he’s a city boy, and was thus was viewed as a complete foreigner among the remote pygmies). When Issa finally convinced them of his ethnicity, they turned their suspicions on Shannon. She must be a water nymph! And so they checked her shower run off for signs of discarded fish scales, since it’s a well-known fact that water nymphs have fish scales and change their form in the shower. I thought these stories sounded positively charming – material for some magical-reality novel – but Issa assured me that it was not at all nice to live under such superstitions. They even had to give up their radio – their only contact with the outside world – when the Pygmies decided it was really a satellite telephone they used to send reports to the CIA!

Anyway, it was a real treat to spend the week with them in their wonderful apartment. At the end of a long day of sightseeing, there was nothing nicer than being able to go home – to a real home – and kick up your feet, have a beer and a home cooked meal, and unwind over interesting conversation. As corny as this must sound, it felt like being part of a really big family, and, after living so long in Germany, with little regular personal contact apart from Kevin, that felt really nice. We even got to participate in Ahmad’s sixth birthday party (see the slideshow)!

So now, in addition to thinking it preferable to travel with one’s parents, I also think it’s preferable to always stay with relatives wherever you go. Interesting relatives, that is. Sadly, I think the number of interesting relatives I have outside of Arkansas are few and far between. Shannon and Issa will leave Paris at the end of August – she back to New York, while he tests the waters in Burundi. (Wait, does Burundi even have water?). Ultimately, they want to relocate to Africa, but while they’re both familiar with West Africa, East Africa is terra incognita. Now, I can definitely see myself in Manhattan again, but Burundi? Eh, I guess it would be worth a visit if Shannon and Issa, Ahmad and Julien were there. There’s also a place for them in Edmonton, Alberta, should they ever want to visit.

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