17 February 2014

You kiss, others tell*

My Congolese colleagues all properly call it St. Valentine’s Day and were tickled when I wore a (unintentionally) thematically appropriate red shirt. As a valentine’s gift, let me begin by sharing the rather critical information that sex apparently makes you smarter. I thought you would want to know that. For what it’s worth, my personal take-away from that article is that I now need to follow intercourse with some light philosophy reading and meditation. My cognitive and hippocampal functioning will improve like whoa, though all future partners are now guaranteed to think that I’m insane. The speed with which they flee might well determine if the experiment is a success or not.

With that out of the way, I’m going to return to my recent ruminations on what it means to live the expat life here in Bunia. Most in the NGO world (and not only here, but in most humanitarian contexts) are forced to live in community. There are sound logistical reasons for this. It allows for a safer team, it’s cheaper, and finding your own place is, frankly, a bitch. Some people do it, but it’s super complicated and more difficult to maintain, landlords and real estate agents around here being somewhat less than responsive (and the latter non-existent). Organisationally speaking, team living is the only way to go. Even personally, there are some real benefits: it’s not as scary, not as lonely, and I don’t have to do my own laundry or go grocery shopping unless I’m really motivated.

That said, I haven’t lived with this many people in a single residence since college, and it’s…a challenge. I like my space. And you never really have that here. One of my colleagues is forever disparaging people (particularly the Dutch, for reasons I don’t fully understand) for never leaving their rooms. But, look, if I just want to listen to some quiet music and read a book without interruption, it is impossible to do in the living room. If you sit in the open, no matter how bugger-off your body language reads, people will take it as an indication that you’re willing to have a 30 minute-long discussion about their trials in acquiring a green card or learning to wind surf or experiences nursing in Switzerland or the societal breakdowns that make Americans gun-toting fatties and the French godless Bacchanalians. And it’s not that I don’t care about these things or the person I’m speaking to. It’s just that, sometimes, I would rather not chat. And if I want that time without blowing people off like an insufferable ice queen, I have to take it in my room.

Sorry for the rant. The upshot is that we all live and work in very close proximity with each other. This set up is only successful when approached with patience, sensitivity, respect of privacy, and maturity. Which is to say, it’s not generally successful at all. I kid, I kid. Seriously, though, no matter what happens, we’re one another’s soap opera. For a bunch of what are ostensibly adults, we can get awfully petty. I remember a co-worker once ranting about how nasty someone was because she (the supposedly nasty one) didn’t clear her (the ranter’s) plate from the table with the other dishes. I mean, that bitch! Another time, someone opined that the cat had gone missing because one of our colleagues had bribed the guards to kill it (it was fine. It turned up after a week, none the worse for ware and desirous of fish). I think the Country Director bears the brunt of the interpersonal strife – in addition to being our boss, she had the dubious honour of also being our RA, chastising people when they stay out past curfew or drink beers they didn’t buy. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

She’s also the lucky party who gets to manage inter-office romance. Like the couple that announced their engagement after very unsubtly dating for a grand total of three months. No one wants to say out loud what a bad idea this is, so we all just manage that we’re happy for them and we really hope it works out and leave it at that with a damningly pregnant pause. And while that was fairly straight forward, if perhaps ill-advised, we’re now avidly watching what is shaping up to be a proper love triangle. The non-emotionally entangled members of the team (the women, at least. I don’t know where the other fellas stand) watch obsessively for clues in body language, rooting for the ladies involved to variously step up their efforts or, for the love of God, tone it down, the local staff is watching, for Pete’s sake! It doesn’t help that the women in question had something of a tempestuous professional relationship to begin with. Throw a dubiously eligible man (he has, on multiple occasions, expressed the desire to become a Protestant monk, so they both might be barking up a celibate tree) into the mix, and the sparks are flying in the most entertainingly understated, passive-aggressive manner.

I sometimes feel bad about gossiping about my co-workers with other co-workers, but…there’s no one else to talk to about it. It’s hard to gossip about people here with friends from home and vice versa, given the lack of overlap betwixt the two. And I’m fairly certain people talk about me, too (that might be hubris. I’m not sure my ego could fully take it if they didn’t think about me at all). Finally, it can be a bit difficult to ignore gossip that is very nearly thrust under your nose. It behoves those living in community (especially such a thin-walled one) that nothing is ever as secret as you imagine it to be. At least, as far as field relationships are concerned. Home stuff, meanwhile, is as private as your inside voice.

Generally, I think we would all be a lot kinder to one another if we weren’t around each other so much. Some people to attempt to engender that space by living in a kind of self-imposed isolation – hardly interfacing with the team, never joining in any social activities. I found one colleague’s confession that she never joins us for Zumba or yoga or volleyball because she was so tired of making friends only to have them leave heart-breaking (and also took it as an indication that she should possibly get the hell out of dodge). Another is a bit removed, in that she doesn’t live with us, but with her Congolese husband. Even they remain subject to scrutiny, though. The woman with the husband, for instance, has been in Congo for some 20 years and often gives the younger staff (unsolicited) fashion advice, usually comprised of the warning that our skirts are too short (knee-length) or our jeans too tight (boy-friend cut) and someone might mistake us for whores (so that’s why people keep yelling Cherie at me on the street. It has nothing to do with my skin colour or obvious expat-ness. Glad we got that cleared up). We readily ignore her advice, no matter how well-meant, given that, by her own admission, her husband won’t let her wear tank tops (it’s because she’s a pastor’s wife. But, still, you lost me at ‘my husband won’t allow…). 

At any rate, one does always feel subject to some observation, even by teams not your own. It makes the prospect of dating somewhat daunting (I had a friend from another NGO who returned to France in December recently contact to ask if it’s wasn’t true that two other people – neither of which works for her NGO or mine – had actually gotten together and were now pregnant. The gossip mill here does not respect continents or time zones, let alone barbed wire-tipped walls). Often, what coupling does happen is less traditional dating than lusty interactions ranging from smiling too much when talking to someone or dancing together too many times or even furtive, alcohol-aided snogs in dark corners at house parties.

Some folk do legitimately try and date, though it is a fraught prospect. Forget the long-term questions (is this viable? Should I invest in a relationship here? Is this person also single/emotionally available, or are they lying?). Even a non-illict fling would need some kind of date night, and that’s not easy. When two of my colleagues finally came out as being a couple, they could never find anywhere to go on a romantic night out. At MONUSCO House, there is little social convention to prevent crashing. It’s the romantic equivalent of being unable to read a book on the couch unmolested. A determined pair could, of course, also try to eat out somewhere else at one of the many and varied dining establishments of Bunia. I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve tried anywhere else. In part, that might have to do with the competition. Take, for example, the months-old Garden Restaurant (actual name). When it first opened, the expat community flocked there; we are voracious in our appetite for diversity. As we walked in that first night, there were sounds of admiration for the lighting and landscaping, about how airy it was, what beautiful gardens (at least the directness of the name is earned, unlike the rather more perplexing Camping). As we crossed the broad lawn to our appointed table, everyone agreed to how lovely it all was. One of my teammates, however, kept appraising the high concrete walls topped in barbed wire and finally allowed that it looked like the exercise yard at the poshist prison in town. I suppose it all depends on how you chose to perceive things. For example, that night, I could have opted to focus on how charming the wait staff was, how delicious and inexpensive the food (my dish was 4 USD!), how much I enjoyed the soundtrack (Congolese artists, where MONUSCO usually plays American and Indian). Or I could dwelled on how less than half the menu was actually on offer (and it took the server nearly an hour to determine what the kitchen had available), once an order was finally placed, the food took two hours and 15 minutes to arrive, was not what I ordered, and ultimately made me vomit for the next six hours (so, of the two words in its name, it at least lived up to one. Batting .500!). The fact that I’ve since been back twice points to the fact that I am: (a) foolish; (b) an eternal optimist; or (c) resigned to the fact that I have few other options, none of which are really any better. Take your pick.

I can’t help but imagine if someone – especially two points on our prickly little love triangle – did try to go on a date. I am presented with the gloriously absurd vision of the rest of the team tailing them, peaking around corners and hiding behind non-existent newspapers and magazine racks and large potted ferns like some kind of sorry, love-deranged spies, our titters barely concealed behind our hands. It would be a shambles. We don’t even have the trench coats convention dictates.

*I had fully intended to post this on Friday afternoon (in a fuller, and one had hoped, funnier, iteration), only to be laid low by malaria. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to come up with anything pithy to say about the malaria, aside from sharing the wisdom that, if you are going to get sick, perhaps try to plan it for the weekend you don’t run out of water and gas. Any illness, tropical or otherwise, is best endured with hot showers and copious amounts of tea.