Sans Gluten SVP

I take my pastry very seriously, especially my french pastry.  I consider myself a connoisseur of sorts and I have been honing my palate for decades.  I have always believed in the medicinal powers of dessert.  When I was a small child, I explained to my mother with great exasperation that I in fact had two stomachs.  One for savory foods and one for sweets.  Therefore when I could not finish my dinner, that did not mean in any way shape or form that I should be deprived of something sweet.  This theory was not widely accepted.  Now over the years I have worked to perfect my baking and my eating skills. 

So when my lovely aunt emailed me, imploring me to try a gluten free bakery in Paris I was skeptical.  A lot of people in my family have celiacs, so I have tried the full gambit of gluten free wannabes and mostly they taste like cardboard.  But, my aunt is wise and she runs a kick ass food blog, so I figured I would trust her.  The results were mixed.

I went to Chambelland one day after work.  It is near Oberkampf tucked away on a little side street facing an open square.  I went around seven at night, which is always poor planning for bakeries, since most of the products are gone.  The inside was a pleasant shade of green, with marble counter tops, and rustic wooden tables.  I decided if I was going to go gluten free for the evening I was going to commit, so I ordered a pain au sucre, a lemon tartlet, and a loaf of bread.  I asked the woman behind the counter which bread she liked the best, she assured me with doe eyed certainty that the 5-grain bread was amazing.  

I am a woman of fleeting self control and constant hunger, so on the metro ride home I tore off a piece of the pain au sucre and dove in.  My first thought was morose disappointment.  I had hope for all the celiacs in my life that this would be the real thing.  I mean don’t get me wrong it was tasty, the top was appropriately caramelized with vanilla and sugar.  They got the “au sucre” part right, but the whole “pain” thing was a little off.  The bread was dense.  It lacked fluff, air, and complex texture.  Tasty, but not bread.  

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While cooking dinner that night, I cut off a slice of the 5 grain bread.  The crust was armored in the aforementioned 5 grains and nigh impossible to cut.  I coated the slice with a little butter and sampled.  It was spectacular.  It was a little bit sweet, salty, and incredibly nutty.  The bread was aromatic, but once again there was a textural issue.  The loaf was dense, so dense it could have been used as a very effective club.  The little slice with butter took immense dedication to chew.  The next day, when I used the bread for lunch I struggled to eat my sandwich.  The five grain exterior was the first line of defense and after that I had to work through mouthfuls of dry bread with bits of meat and veggies tossed in.  

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The final hope for the gluten free was the lemon tartlet.  It was topped with a mountain of toasted meringue.  When I tasted it I once again felt confusion.  The meringue, delicious.  The lemon curd, amazing.  It was very tart with little bits of lemon rind, just as it should be.  Then there was the crust.  It was flaky, the taste was good, but it was incredibly dry.  As if someone had forgotten to add the butter.  The irony was, it felt like I had a mouth full of flour.

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Objectively, these things were good, but compared to glutenous foods they pale in comparison.  Its like making a movie version of a book, its just never going to be the same.  I think they taste good, but they lose their value when compared to their gluten counterparts.  The celiac community and the rest of us would be a lot better off if we just decided to call gluten free foods by another name.  The title pastry and bread is dishearteningly misleading.  So I would decidedly recommend Chambelland, especially for the gluten free, but do not go there expecting divine reincarnations of gluten foods you love.  This is an animal of a different color, accept it for that. 

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To Rosie

Last week was big for America and big for
Massachusetts.  SCOTUS upheld the
Affordable Care Act and struck down the ban on gay marriage.   In the past couple days the world has been
painted the colors of the rainbow in celebration.  The gay marriage decision was well timed with
Gay Pride day, so when I walked out of my flat on Saturday the streets were
dancing with color and glitter.  There
were eccentric costumes, huge displays of pride, and endless smiles.   

The news of ACA and Gay Marriage have brought warmth to my
soul.  In light of the domestic terrorism
in Charleston, the bombings in Kuwait, and the attack in Tunisia – the good
guys needed a win.  When I heard the news
I was so excited, because it meant my country was acknowledging the civil liberties
of all citizens, their rights to healthcare and their right to love.  Now there is still a long way to go. This
bill will not end discrimination against the LGBT community.  We still have issues of race, class,
sexuality, gender, and disability to deal with.
But for now I want to celebrate this win and remember a friend.  

Rose Marie Hill was my childhood babysitter, friend, and
confidant.  She died in 2008 after a
brutal battle with breast cancer.  One of my lingering regrets in life is that  when
she died I had not seen her in a couple years, because she moved out to Seattle.  Now Rosie had an inextinguishable fire that I
have always struggled to put to words.
Her life, even in pain and suffering, was filled with light.  She was a performance artist, a world
traveler, and a total badass.  The older
I get the more I realize how much Rose influenced me. 

She was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was
twenty-one.  She found a lump, the doctor
said she was too young for cancer, and by the time someone believed her it was
too late.  She spent ten years fighting
her disease with grace, strength, and resilience.  She started working with my family when I was
around six years old.  As a “test” I
spent an afternoon at her art studio to see if we were a good match.  I vividly remember sitting with her,
that first day, watching her unwrap Tootsie Pops for her art installment.  She was the kind of person you couldn’t help
but to love.

My afternoons with her were always filled with laughter and
spontaneity.  When she was not
babysitting us, she was traveling the world, trying to see as much as
possible before she died.  From every
trip she brought me a little present, a fan from Spain, an Eskimo doll from
Alaska, an alpaca from somewhere in South America, and so many more. I think
watching her run around the world was, at least in part, my inspiration for
traveling.  

Rosie became a fixture in our lives.  She took my brother and me on an infamous car
camping trip, where a big brown bear ate all of our food.  She was there when I came home from school,
for holidays, and celebrations.  And when
my parents got divorced she was a rock that helped me weather the storm.  Rose blurred the lines between friend,
babysitter, and family.   

My last memory of Rosie is her 50th birthday
party.  I think she was actually turning
28, but she was never one for rules.  She
was about to move to Seattle and she knew she was never going to make it to
fifty so she decided she was going to celebrate her fiftieth birthday with a
fifties themed party.  The party summed
her up so well, she said “fuck it” to the conventions of society and decided to
celebrate in a way that made her happy.  There
were little quiches, a big red velvet cake, karaoke, and Rose decked out in a
big taffeta dress.  At her encouragement
my brother, mother, and I did a karaoke song.
I have never liked being on stage, singing or being the center of
attention, especially when I was ten.  I
was nervously twisting the hem of my dress, muttering into the mic, when I
looked at Rosie.  She looked like she had
front row seats to the Beatles.  She was
so excited to watch us have fun and under her supportive gaze I was able to
belt out the lyrics and forget my inhibitions.

Here’s the other thing about Rosie, she was gay.  Having her in my life, I never questioned gay
rights.  When Massachusetts legalized gay
marriage in 2003, I remember being confused.
I asked my parents why marriage would be illegal, especially between two
people who loved each other.  It never
made sense to me, Rosie was one of the kindest and most deserving people I
knew, why would my country do this to her.
At that point I had been sheltered from all of the discrimination and
hatred, living in a liberal bubble of Cambridge.  As I got older I learned all of the hate and
anger towards the LGBT community, but still it baffled me.  Rose was a person and the gender of the
person she loved did not make her any less deserving of happiness.

When Rosie and her partner moved to Seattle, they could not
get married.  Their state and their
country did not recognize their love.
They went to Canada (I think) to have a small ceremony.  Rose died in 2008.  My mother and I went out to Seattle for her
funeral.  We saw her partner (who should
have been her wife), met her whole family, and mourned.  I felt sick that I hadn’t seen her in a few
years and that maybe she didn’t know how much I cared.  My mother and I got up at the wake to speak
about her.  We were both over come with
tears and could barely get through our eulogy.
Afterwards we went to the bathroom to collect ourselves.  Dozens of people stopped us.  “So you’re the ones from Boston?” We
nodded.  “Thank you for being Rosie’s
other family.  She loved you so dearly.”  

Being gay was only a small part of who Rose was.  In my life she was an unstoppable force.   She taught me to be kind, strong,
spontaneous, forgiving, and relentless.
Watching her travel taught my that a single women is totally
capable of conquering the world on her own.
And now that I am facing my own health challenges with EDS, I am
realizing that Rosie taught me how to see the humor in illness, when to be
strong, when to be weak, and how to face pain with great beauty.  

When I heard the news about SCOTUS I thought of her.  She would have loved the Technicolor
explosion of celebration and she would have been in the thick of it, glitter
and all, celebrating her freedom.  So
here’s the thing, legalizing gay marriage gave all the Rosie’s of the US their
deserved freedom.  Freedom to love.  Freedom to marry.  Freedom to benefits, healthcare, and
taxes.  This decision is monumental for
the LGBT community, but I keep thinking about the microcosm of experiences.  Across the country there are all of these
lives, detailed experiences, and relationships that now have the right to be
celebrated.  

My dad always says, “People are people.  That’s all that matters.”  Being gay is only an aspect of a person’s
identity.  It should not define them, nor
limit their rights in society.  Rosie was
a once-in-a-lifetime kind of a person.
She is my absolute argument for why everyone deserves equal rights.  I miss her.
It’s been years since she passed, but I am reminded of my love for her
when I feel the pangs of her absence.  I
would do anything to see her again.  Id
love to sit down for a beer with her, let her see who I’ve become, and show her
how she helped shape me.  Rose was
abused by faults in the healthcare system and denied her equal rights based on
her sexuality.  When I heard about the
ACA and gay marriage decision my heart was filled with melancholy joy.  This week I am celebrating for the progress
of our country and for my dear friend.

New Genocide Memorial Website

When I visited the Gisozi Genocide Memorial Centre a few weeks ago I spent the afternoon at the museum’s archives.  I learned that they were in the process of building a new website that would offer virtual tours, more information in english, and information about the reconciliation process.  I promised when the site when live I would post the details.  

Here is the link http://genocidearchiverwanda.org.rw 

The new website is a wonderful resource, especially for those looking to learn more about the genocide, but do not have the opportunity to visit Rwanda.  There are in-depth tours of not only the museum, but many of the genocide memorials, including the ones I described in earlier posts.  It is also important to keep in mind when looking at this site that it is in large part funded by the government, so there is a strong bias towards the actions of the RPF.

Terrorism in Charleston

I was not productive today.  I was distracted and kept wandering through the internet to check the news about Charleston.  Since the shooting last week my mind’s been preoccupied with the US.  Now I haven’t been stateside for any substantial amount of time in over six months, but it was obvious when I left – and even more so now – that we have a massive race issue in our country.  I don’t know what I can do, so I am going to write until I find a more productive way to channel my frustrations.  

Last Wednesday a terrorist went into a church in Charleston and murdered nine people in a crime of hatred.  For some reason, addressing last weeks events in this manner is controversial, so lets break this down.  Terrorism is the violence or threat of violence where one part is a non-state actor against a specific target audience with politically motivated objective, premeditation and altruism.  Dylann Roof is a non-state actor, who chose the specific target audience of African American congregation of Emanuel AME Church, because of the history of the church and their race.  Roof’s actions were politically motivated, attempting to incite race war in the country, premeditated, and had the altruistic nature of representing white supremacy.  

This is a textbook case of terrorism.  Contrary to what the media portrays, the color of Roof’s skin does not change the definition of crime.  In the past few days conservative and liberal media alike have referred to the shooting as a “tragedy,” “tragic event,” or “senseless.”  This is the language used to refer to a natural disaster, an unpreventable event – not an act of domestic terrorism.  Fox news went so far as to call this an attack on Christianity, not race, when in fact the shooter was Christian.  

I have been impressed with many citizens responses to the shooting, especially the community of Charleston.  Overall, however, these events have shaken me for a number of reasons:

1. I am not religious, but I understand its importance to many people.  Places of worship, regardless of your God are supposed to be a safe.  Two weeks ago I was standing in a church in eastern Rwandan, surrounded by the remains of thousands of Tutsis who had been murdered for inalienable aspects of their identities.  They had gone to a place, dear to them to seek refuge and they were murdered.  To see people in my own country, one that promotes religious and racial freedoms, killed in their place of worship is incredibly disturbing.  To know these people went to praise their God and had the sanctity of their church violated with a hate is sickening.  Murder is always upsetting, but there is something particularly unnerving when is occurs in places that we to consider safe.

2. This violence is a reminder of the race issues in our country.  I am going to say it.  We are living in a period with systemic and undeniable racism.  America’s issues of Black and White did not die in the 1960s with Jim Crow.  Now I believe that race itself is a social construct, with no impact on our genetics, intelligence, or capabilities.  That does not disqualify the centuries of discrimination that have been built around a societal perception of race.  Race may not be real, but racism is.  Blacks and hispanics are stopped by the police at a much higher rate than whites.  Since the war on drugs began, the number of prisoners in the US has skyrocketed and this has disproportionately affected black men.  A white person is more likely to get a job than a black person with the exact same qualifications.  There is also an enormous wealth and education disparity between blacks and whites.  We are not equal.  

3.  As a white upper-middle class woman I live with a huge amount of privilege.  Yes, as a woman I am likely to be a target of abuse and discrimination, but my other identity factors have placed me in an extremely lucky group.  As a matter of birth I am afforded a greater number of privileges and benefits in society due to my skin color.  My whiteness lets me walk by police in any neighborhood, at any time of day, in any sort of clothing without being concerned how they will treat me.  My whiteness gives me disproportionate amounts of power and authority in society.  My whiteness and my wealth make me more likely to get a job.  There are an innumerable number of things that I do not have to consider because of my whiteness.  

4. Gun control.  Now this one is also controversial but pretty basic.  During his presidency Obama has had to give seven speeches about shootings.  The number of Americans who die from gun violence is steadily climbing.  There is no reason for a citizen to own an assault rifle.  The only reason you need a gun is to go hunting or skeet shooting.  The second amendment was written at a time when the US had no military and citizens needed  guns to defend from the British.  We now have the most expensive military in the world.  Someone like Dylann Roof should not have been able to get a gun.  In Australia, there was one school shooting in 1996, then they enacted strict gun laws and there hasn’t been a problem since.  As John Oliver aptly pointed out “One failed attempt at a shoe bomb and we all take off our shoes at the airport. Thirty-one school shootings since Columbine and no change in our regulation of guns

5. Citizens of the US feel uncomfortable in their own country.  My non-white friends do not feel safe here, in their own country.  I know of boys who couldn’t go to their prom after parties, since their parents were worried they’d get shot by the police.  Ive heard stories of peers at college who are regularly uncomfortable at our university.  They are either ostracized or called out to be the token minority kid.  Or non-white men who have to worry about how they make women uncomfortable when they walk down the street.  There is a video of ten year old black boy promising that he won’t hurt anyone, what kind of system is that? My whiteness does not make me anymore or less American than anyone.  I sincerely believe that this country was founded on principles of inclusion and freedom.  If our citizens do not feel free and do not feel included then we are doing something wrong. 

6.  There are still constant reminders of racial oppression in our society that could easily be removed.  I go to school in the South and this year there was a conflict between the administration and the student body.  There was a campus building which was named after a Grand Master in the KKK, amongst other shrines to the Black oppression. After months of protest by a core group of students, the building was ambiguously named Carolina Hall (instead of Hurston Hall, after Zora Neale Hurston).  The administration also put a 16 year ban on re-naming buildings.  I suspect that this so called compromise will not sit well with my fellow students.  The story of my university is not unique.  In Columbia SC, the confederate flag still flies proudly next to the state house.  These are constant reminders why blacks should and cannot feel safe in their country.  It is 2015, the Southern relatives of Robert E. Lee are advocating for that flag to be removed.  Its time for change.

I am angry, hurt, guilty, and broken.  The act of terrorism against Emanuel AME Church feels like the culmination of race issues that have been building in America.  This feels like one of those (potentially dramatized) moments where we have a choice.  I read the news and I am not satisfied with the way my country looks.  I cannot tolerate the treatment of minorities in my community and across the country.  I refuse to be complacent as I see people targeted for who they are, but then it becomes a question of what to do?

I have done the basics.  I wrote a letter to my congressman.  I donated to the fund for funeral services.  I signed the petition to have the flag removed.  But now what? I want to be the best advocate possible without assuming an undeserved space in this conversation.  I can say confidently (and ashamed that it took this long) that this fall I will join the Real Silent Sam Coalition on Campus. I ready and welcome any recommendations about how to better get involved with issues of race in my community and in this country.  

I want a community where blacks feel safe.  If racial equality means sacrificing the privileges of my whiteness, then I am happy to do so.  The events in Charleston last week were horrible and shocking, but I am going to try to use this as my motivation for change.  To be a better ally, to be more proactive.  Terrorism at its core tries to create fear in the population and also incite radical support.  Well then, in that regard Dylann Roof, you have succeed.  You have incited my radical and undying support for the equality and safety of the black community.    

Fitzgerald in Paris

Coming back to live in Paris is a bit like re reading my high school copy of the Great Gatsby. One July afternoon in the summer of 2010, I found a copy of Gatsby on the book shelf in my house. I sat down in the large red armchair in the living room and opened it. I sat there fixed for hours and read the book from cover to cover. Fitzgeralds words captivated me in a way that literature never had before.  Each scene came vividly to life in my mind.  He raised questions about wealth, love, human relationships, and life that hung in my mind for years to come. Gatsby was my coming of age book and Paris my coming of age city.  

When I was sixteen, I lived in Paris for two months. It was my first time living away from home and it did not go as planned. I was supposed to be an au pair for a well-to-do family.  It was going to be my fairytale summer: I would learn french, look after the children, explore the city, and maybe even fall in love with a frenchman. When I arrived in the city however, the family announced that there was a change in plans. They were headed to their home in Switzerland the next morning, where they already had childcare, so my services would not be needed, except for the odd weekend when they were back in city.  I was welcome to stay in their apartment since I was already there. They left the next morning at 6 am and with them took my plans of a perfect summer. I was alone in a city where I did not speak the language, had no connections, no income, and no plan.  My parents gave me the option to come home, but living in Paris was my dream and I was not going to concede so easily. That summer changed me. It was incredibly difficult. I was often lonely and facing the barriers of independence with little guidance. There were many teary, expensive, long distance phone calls where I contemplated going home, but by the time I returned to the US I discovered my unwavering love of travel, confidence in myself, an assured independence, and a permanent bond to the city of Paris.

This is the first time I have been back to Paris since that summer and it is just like cracking open my worn copy of gatsby.  I clearly remember the key characters and the general plot, but the details are something vague to be rediscovered.  The structure of the city remains unchanged but the particulars  have faded in my memory.  Coming here I am thrown back into my adolescence. I see the bar where I had my first drink, the cafe where I had my first full conversation in french, the grocery store where the proprietor taught me the words for different foods.  These are happy memories, like page 28 of Gatsby when “the cab stopped at one slice in a long white cake of apartment-houses,” which taught me the beauty of a perfect metaphor.  These places act as monuments to my moments of triumph.

In Gatsby there are pages I still cringe to read Myrtle’s death, Jay Gatsby’s funeral, and anything involving Tom Buchanan. These are the pieces of the book which forced me to confront my own character and my own approaches to people.  In Paris there are places that are more memorials than monuments – markers of lessons learned.  The place where a man my fathers age asked me to go home with him; the street corner where I burst into tears because no one could understand my french; the place where I yelled for one of the begging Roma children to leave me alone. These are not proud places, but they all taught me something.

Before I left the US, my father said that returning to Paris this summer, on my own terms was some form of poetic justice. At the time I brushed off the comment as the ponderings of a someone with a BA in philosophy.  Then my last night in Rwanda, bored, I pulled out my copy of the Great Gatsby. I usually keep in with me when I travel, a back up book if you will, but it had been years since I read it cover to cover. Tucked under a mosquito net, in an air bnb in Kigali, I revisited the summer on West Egg with Nick and Jay.

It was odd to see which parts of the novel fifteen year old me had highlighted, underlined, or noted in the margins.  The pieces that stood out to me now were so much different. Lying in bed, I reflected on the book and on Paris. In many ways the Great Gatsby, has been immortalized by its final line “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The whole time Jay is trying to go back, to a time when Daisy loved him, when things were pure, and when he thought he was happy. As Nick explains, he was obsessed with the unattainable – recreating a moment that had already disappeared.

This summer I am not trying to go back. I can see all of the pieces of Paris that changed me when I was sixteen, I can see the city I fell in love with, but I am not disillusioned about the time I spent here.  Four years ago this city was in charge and I was at its mercy trying to learn a little independence. This time I’m doing it my way. 

One of my favorite passages in Gatsby reads, “For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened – then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.”  To me thats Fitzgerald, he writes in personified images of beautiful familiarity.  We have all been captured by a voice and we’ve all seen children waiting out the last moments of sunshine.  Gatsby forever unites those images and gives us a new understanding of a previously simple emotion.

In some ways that is also Paris with its history, both personal and shared, that have shifted my conceptions.  Traveling and living abroad changes my worldview in same manner as Fitzgerald, by redefining the bounds of understanding.

Things of Note in Rwanda

Coffee – There are two kinds of coffee I have found in
Kigali.  There is the Nestle powdered
stuff and there is the locally roasted espresso beans.  There is a chain of coffee shops here called
Bourbon Coffee, they even have a few shops in the US, one of which is a few blocks from where I grew
up.  The first time I went in I had to ask if it was the same company.  It was.
Their motto is “Crop to Cup,” which back home I assumed was just a way
of playing into the fair trade/Cambridge/hippie market.  In the states their coffee is standard, but
nothing special.  Coffee here, at Bourbon
and other coffee shops I have tried, is absolutely amazing.  I can usually drink a few cappuccinos a day,
but the stuff here will get you wired.
It is intense dark roast coffee, that is super flavorful.  Maybe it’s the fact that it comes from
nearby, and doesn’t have to spend weeks being processed and shipped that
changes the taste.  Either way Im hooked.

Roads – In the final episodes of West Wing, the character CJ
who is at that point the Chief of Staff is debating what job she should take
when president Bartlett’s term ends.  She
is offered a position at a nonprofit to spend millions of dollars however she
sees fit to help the world.  She chooses
roads.  She wants to build paved roads
throughout the world to create reliable and safe infrastructure.  When you think about it, it’s a brilliant
idea.  It cuts down on fuel use,
transport times, and maintenance.  At the
same time it increases access to medical care, trade, and commerce.  Also paved roads with proper drainage are
immune to the issues that dirt roads suffer during the rainy season.  Well Kigali doesn’t need CJ.  They are all set on the roads thing.  Of course there are still a few dirt roads
here and there, but they are rare.  The
paved roads are glorious, seriously.
They are way nicer roads than most any city I have been to in the
US.  They are smooth and even without
potholes or cracks.  Also they have speed
bumps everywhere as a way to regulate and slow down traffic.  The other thing is that the roads and
sidewalks here are immaculate.  There is
no litter, dirt, plants, or cigarette butts to be found.  The streets are maintained by an army of women
with brooms and dustpans in yellow construction jackets whowork for the state.  Everyday these women sweep the street by
hand.  

Security – There are guns everywhere in Kigali.  Now that sounds extreme, but the only people
carrying them are the military and the police.
It is still intimidating.  On
every street corner and by every major building there are not one, but a few
policeman carrying large guns.  Some
AK-47s, which at this point I can recognize, and the other models I am not so
sure.  Also to enter any shopping mall or
hotel there is a security check.  You and
your bags must go through an x ray machine and if you are driving a car it must
be searched as well.  This has the dual
effect of making me very safe but also quite uncomfortable.  I wonder who they are protecting us
from or what they are trying to contain.  

Multi-lingual – I am used to living in a single lingual
country.  In the US, regardless of class
or education, a lot of people speak only one language.  Here everyone speaks Kinyarwandan, the
national language.  Then there is a mix
of English and French.  Before the war,
French was taught in schools and after English was taught.  So in general if you are speaking to a person
older than thirty they are most likely fluent in French, and the younger ones
fluent in English.  For the older generation theres an economic division when it comes to languages, so many cab drivers only speak Kinyarwandan.  I have been impressed, when trying to negotiate a price or location with a cab driver, a small child of about eight will walk over and fluently translate for us.  They’ll go from Kinyarwandan to english and even help me barter a price. On top of that many
people speak languages of surrounding countries.  At anytime you can hear a number of languages
used in a single conversation, and Rwandans who are multilingual are able to
switch between the many languages seamlessly.

Advertising – I noticed this when I arrived in Kigali, on my
drive from the airport.  There are two
kinds of signs here.  One reads Kwibuka,
which means remembrance, signs about genocide are absolutely
everywhere here, especially during the 100 day remembrance period.  Forgetting is not an option.  The second is a very different advertising vocabulary.  The first thing
I saw was a sign for “Fair Contractors” with smiling men in hardhats giving the
thumbs up.  All of the signs use this
intentionally reassuring, but slightly off putting language.  Companies and products proclaim themselves to
be fair, just, equal, even, and other words in the same vein.  I never saw any advertisement that claimed to have the best product, only the fairest.  Third there is anti-corruption signage
everywhere.  The signs say “Stomp out
Corruption” and there is a hotline you can call.  

Construction – its like Boston in the sense that everything
is under construction all of the time.
Everything is on its way to being newer, bigger, brighter, and
better.  The country is trying hard to
leave the stereotypes of genocide, war, and poverty that are so common in
Africa.  You can almost feel the push
forward towards something different.

Hot Sauce – Okay, I am not perfect.  I fall victim to stereotypes and biases like
any person and since being in Rwanda I have had a few thrown back in my
face.  I arrived with the notion that
there would be many similarities between the culture in Uganda and Rwanda, I
mean c’mon theyre neighbors.  I am
consistently shown that, like anywhere in the world neighboring countries are
actually very different.  A great example
of this is hot sauce.  In Uganda there is
nothing spicy.  Food has salt, but that it when it comes to flavor.
I sat down to lunch the other day and ordered brouchette (Rwandan meat
kebabs).  The waitress brought over a
tray of condiments, which contained a bottle of Rwandan hot sauce.  Thinking it would have a meek flavor, I doused
my French fries in it and made a small pool next to the kebabs.  I dunked the first piece of meat and popped
it in my mouth.  Immediately my eyes
started to water.  Now the meat was spicy to begin with, but the sauce was the kicker.  It burned, it made my
lips tingle, and sweat drip from my face.  It was really really hot.  I underestimated the Rwandan capacity for
spiciness.  I will not make that mistake
again.  

Wealth –There is a very literal hierarchy of wealth in
Kigali.  The money in this town follows the
peaks and valleys of the many hills.
Wealthy buildings, people, and organizations are on the tops of the
hills.  These are expensive buildings
with high fences, manicured lawns, security, and staffs.  The valleys however, house the small poorly
built homes, the dirt roads, bus stations, and people of lower economic
status.  To me it is odd and fascinating
to see wealth in such a literal vertical manner.

Expats, Immigrants, & the Returning Diaspora

Friday night I was going a bit stir crazy, when my host popped his head into my room and said that he was having a few friends over for
beers and that I was welcome to join.
This seemed like a welcome change of pace and distraction.  Now up until this recently I had assumed that him and his cousin were born and raised in Rwanda.  Turns out they grew up in Belgium.   

After I finished up my work, I went inside the main house to
join them.  In the beginning of the night
there were only two friends present.  I
poured myself a whisky on the rocks and the conversation began.  It was a mix of English (for my sake), French
(their first language), and languages from Congo and Burundi.  It was nice to be around people and part of a
social interaction, not necessarily to talk to them, but to be surrounded
by words and conversation and know they were intended for you.  I looked back and forth between the faces and just listened.
It became apparent that my host had gone to both high school and college
in the US on a basketball scholar ship.
He had only just recently moved back to Rwanda.  

At this point a handful more people had wandered in with
various bottles of alcohol.  All of them
were born and raised in other countries and had at some point in the last
couple years moved to Rwanda.  

I ended up in a long running conversation with one woman.  We talked about what anyone
talks about at a party, the nightlife here, the food, boys, the boredom on the
weekends, but we also talked about the history of Rwanda, what it feels like
coming here as a guest, and her masters program.  She is writing her masters thesis which is
also on genocide.  At one point her
friend joined the conversation and said that her father was the chief of police
and that he would probably be happy to talk to me.  

 The night continued that way.  More whisky was poured, more ice brought from
the kitchen, cokes fetched from the local market.  The laughter became louder and the English
less frequent.  Most of the conversations
were in French, of which I could follow about 70%.  Periodically someone would check in on me
with a “ça va?” And then go back to their conversation.  

It felt late and I was exhausted, so I stood up and made my
way to the kitchen, with the intention of saying my goodbyes.  The clock over the stove flashed 1:45
AM.  I was shocked.  I walked in and my host said “this muzungu
went to the bush.”  A room full of eyes
turned to me.  I explained.  And there was laughter.  Someone turned to the only
other woman in the room, and said “you wouldn’t last two days in the bush, much
less two months.”  We started talking
about my time there and what I had done.
It turned out two of the men had done their schooling in Uganda and had
one parent from there.  One of the men
had gone to West Salem State for college, which was just a few hours from
UNC.  As with most fellow North
Carolinians we reminisced about Cookout milkshakes.  I was connected to these people in ways I
hadn’t imagined.  

I looked at the clock again.
Now it was flashing 2:30 AM, and this group was just starting to make
there way out to the clubs.  I bid goodnight,
went to my room and passed out.   

When I woke up the next morning I was thinking about the
labels that we put on travelers.  A great
deal of it is based on skin color.  The
white western Europeans and Americans who move to different parts of the world
are called ex-pats, but anyone with a different skin color who moved to a new
country is an immigrant.  The floods of
people that enter the US every year are not referred to as something charming
and endearing like ex-patriots, but instead their title has a negative
connotation.  Then there is this other
third category that I am just now noticing, of the diaspora.  In Rwanda this is young successful people, of
Rwandan parents, who were born, raised, and educated in Belgium, the US, or the
UK.  They are coming back with great
force.  Although many of them do not
speak Kinyarwandan, once they move here they are unequivocally considered
Rwandan.  I find it bizarre, that the
label we received when traveling is based on our skin color and our parents
place of birth.

The Aftermath

Jean pulled up to the house, I paid him and went
inside.  Luckily no one was home.  I lay down and closed my eyes, but when I did
that the images of that day came back.
I  opened my eyes and stared at
the ceiling for a little while, then I opened my book.  I got through about fifty pages, absorbing
very little information before I stopped.
So I sat down and began to write about what we had seen that day.  Part way through my stomach started to rumble
aggressively.  I hadn’t really eaten
since breakfast.  Jean and I had shared
some dried apricots in the car ride back but that was about it.

I went inside the main house and fixed myself some
dinner.  A piece of chicken, some rice,
and spinach.  I sat down at the table and
looked at my food.  I decided to start
with the chicken first, but as soon as the knife hit the bone I lost my
appetite.  I had cut through the skin and
flesh of the chicken, exposing the bone underneath.  Staring at that was far too reminiscent of
what we’d seen that day.  I covered the
chicken with a piece of napkin.    I sat there twisting the rings on my fingers
and thinking.  I was still in shock and
couldn’t quite understand everything that we had seen.  

Eventually I ate the rice and spinach, in a mechanical “I
must provide fuel for my body” sort of a way.
I cleared my plate and immediately felt guilt for wasting food,
especially meat.

Back inside my room, I just sort of stood for a second.  I wasn’t entirely sure what one was supposed
to do, when you felt yourself breaking.
I called one of my friends from home, who I had visited the
concentration camp with.  She picked up
after a few rings, “Corie?!” “Is everything okay? What’s wrong?” She knew if I
was calling long distance it wasn’t just to say hey.  I quickly explained that everything was sort
of all right.  I was not kidnapped, lost,
or in failing health.  I was just
sad.  “The babies,” I said, “There skulls
were the size of my fist.  They killed
them by throwing them against the walls.
You could still see the blood.” I cried to her for a while, in a way
that is only possible between close friends.
By the end of a ten minute conversation I felt some sort of emotional
release and I was able to hand up.

Later that night my mom called, I had told her of my plans
for the day.  I told her what I had seen,
but there wasn’t a lot to say.  We talked
for a while as well about our family, our pets, neighborhood gossip, anything
but what I was doing in Rwanda.  

 After we hung up I got in bed.  Usually before traveling I download movies
to tv shows to my various devices to past the time.  Before coming here I forgot.  By some minor miracle The Princess Bride and Rear
Window
were downloaded on my computer.
For the second night in a row I watched The Princess Bride and fell asleep to the grandfather saying “As
you wish…”

The Mass Graves: Ntarama and Nyamata

* Trigger warning: this post contains explicit descriptions
of violence

I did the math, and if I count conservatively, today marks
the 18th and 19th genocide sites I have visited.  This list includes mass graves, memorials,
concentration camps, and ghettos.  I keep
telling myself that it will get easier and that maybe this time it wont hurt so
much, but in many ways I am relieved that visiting these places wrecks me.  I do not want to become desensitized to these
things, because the emotional reaction is a sign of my persistent
humanity.   People often ask me why I do
this to myself, why I keep going to these places, what possesses me to seek out
these painful experiences.  Over the
years I have come up with polished answers that growing up Jewish and working
with members of the Sudanese refugee community when I was young influenced my
“path.”  I am not a particularly
religious person, so I don’t think that this is some sort of higher
calling.  In reality I have no idea what
led me here.

 I questioned my own motivations when I visited Ntarama and
Nyamata memorials in the East of Rwanda today.
At 11:30, after church services ended, Jean picked me up.  He is a Rwandan taxi driver who I met a few
days ago.  It is common practice here
that once you find a driver you like you exchange numbers and almost
exclusively use their services.  For me
the challenge was finding someone with whom I had a minimal language barrier,
and who would not charge me the “Mzengu Price.”
Jean is a kind soft spoken man in his late fifties, who speaks French
and Kinyarwandan, and continuously seems to charge me Rwandan prices.  Prior to departure we agreed that for a few
hours of driving it would be about $35.
I got in the back of the cab and we began our hour’s journey to the
east.

The drive there, through the Rwandan countryside, was
beautiful but I felt a tightness in my chest the entire time.  This was the first time I was visiting a
genocide site of this severity on my own.
I had gone to smaller memorials and museums on my own, but for the
concentration camps and big places I always had someone to lean on.  I had been forewarned that these were two of
the hardest places to visit, not just in Rwanda, but generally in the history
of genocide in the 20th century. 

We arrived in the district, and pulled onto a narrow dirt
road.  After bumping along for a while we
arrived at Ntarama, adorned with white and grey memorial fabrics.  In the front lawn of the property was a group
of about forty Rwandans each holding a single white lily with a grey bow
wrapped around it.  Jean parked the car
and softly announced, in French, that he will accompany me inside.  We walked onto the property and hung
back.  I was unsure if it was a group of
survivors or if it was a private memorial and I did not want to intrude.  Jean asked one of the people in Kinyarwandan,
who explained that there was only one person available to give tours of the
grounds and she was currently presenting to this group, so if we wanted to be
guided we would have to wait.  Jean and I
stationed ourselves on a bench and waited for around 45 minutes, which gave me
time to calm myself and take account of the surroundings.

Ntarama was a church in small Tutsi town.  During the beginning of the ethnic
segregations, many Tutsis were forced to move to this region, where there is
little arable land and a high presence of tsetse flies.  By the time the genocide began, nearly the
entire area was Tutsis.  From the garden,
it looked like a standard church for the region.  By the time the first tour had finished I had
memorized every inch of the gardens.
Right as we were about to begin, two other white foreigners arrived, so
they joined us on the tour.  This was the
first thing about the genocide that they were seeing, so the tourguide first
gave a bit of background to the conflict.

Then she explained that two days after the genocide began,
thousands fled to this church, believing that no one would hurt them in the
house of god.  They managed to keep the
interhamwe away for a few days, but by April 12th 1994 they overtook
the church.  They threw grenades onto the
property, and then came in with machetes, clubs, and guns to kill anyone who
survived the blast.  In a matter of days thousands
of Tutsis were murdered at the church, a number managed to escape to a nearby
swamp, where they could hide.  The guide
said that inside there were clothes, bodies, coffins, possessions of the dead,
and the weapons use to kill them.  Then
we walked in 

The church is a small rectangle, with two rows of maybe
twenty benches, a modest alter, and two doors.
We entered through the back door and were immediately confronted with
shelves containing human remains.  The
shelving spanned the entire back wall of the church.  Two shelves contained hundreds of skulls and
the third contained arm and leg bones.
Then to the left of us were the church pews, each with a coffin
atop.  Then there were clotheslines drawn
across the width of the church, each sagging with the weight of the clothes of
the dead.   The guide pointed to
different skulls, explaining which cracks were left by different kinds of
weapons.  “This is a bullet, this is a
machete, this is a club” and so on.  Then
she pointed to a shattered skull that was no bigger than my fist.  To kill the babies and small children, she
explained, they smashed their heads against the walls.  Then she pointed to the coffins and said each
contained the remains of probably fifty people.
Then we proceeded towards the altar.

 The other end of the church was full of different
relics.  There were strings of brightly
colored rosaries, pots, pans, mattresses, and shoes.  Then around the base of the altar there was a
collection of weapons, which had been used in that church.  There were machetes, scythes, nailed clubs,
knives, large unidentifiable metal objects, and then a long narrow sharpened
stick that was perhaps five feet long.
The guide explained how the different objects were used.  Most were obvious, she said that they stuck
nails in the wooden clubs, since it made the killing more efficient.  Then she explained about the long
sticks.  She said Tutsi women in particularly
were tortured as a way to dehumanize the population.  After women had been raped the militia would
force the stick through her genitals, through her body, until it broke her
neck.  This was considered one of the
most gruesome ways of killing.

I was in shock.  I
felt adhered to the ground, my eyes running across the length of the church,
from the pointed stick, along the rows of clothes, the children’s skulls.  I couldn’t cry.  I was just kind of there – in front of it all
and unsure what to do.  We walked out of
the church, and the guide said there were three more things to see.

 First we walked into what used to be the priests
quarters.  The room had empty coffins,
waiting for bodies yet uncovered.  It
also had stacks of worn bullet ridden bibles and school children’s
notebooks.  She said this is where they
kept the documents that were recovered with the bodies.  Then she led us to another building, which
used to be a kitchen and had suffered extensive damage from the bombing.  It was left in its condition, so show the
extent of damage that the grenades caused.
Next we went to the Sunday school room.
Here the children and babies had been hiding when the interwhame overtook
the grounds.  One wall was marked with
blood and brain matter of the babies who had been hit against the wall.  Then on the surrounding walls there were
notes from different school groups that had visited the property.  

Finally we went to the mass graves, which like the others I
had seen here in Rwanda, was massive grey concrete rectangles.  There are roughly eleven thousand people
interned here from the Ntarama massacre as well as bodies recovered form the
surrounding area.  The Wall of Names here
only has 250 names written on it.  The
guide explained that these are the only reported names they have after twenty
years.  Since this was a primarily Tutsi
area, entire families and neighborhoods were killed and there is no one left to
remember their names.  

 That concluded our tour and we walked down to main entrance
and a guest book.  I talked with the
guide, who said she is currently earning her masters in peace and conflict
studies.  She is writing her thesis about
the Ntarama memorial and asked me to fill out a survey for her.  We exchanged email addresses and then Jean
and I walked to the car.  

 The two white foreigners from our tour, were standing next
to the cab.  Then said they had taken
moto taxis here and had no way to get back to the nearest town.  We gave them a ride and I sat in the front
with Jean.  Turns out one was from Texas
and one from the Netherlands and they had both sold all of their possessions to
travel the world.  They met a month ago
in Uganda and were now continuing on together.
We dropped them off where the dirt roads turned to pavement and headed
in the opposite direction towards Nyamata.
Sitting in the front seat made my conversation with Jean more
comfortable.  He told me that it was also
his first time visiting these places.

 About ten minutes later we arrived at the second memorial
and Jean parked the car.  From the
outside it was clear that this church is considerably larger.  Our temporary Dutch and American companions,
had warned us that Nyamata is a harder place to visit.  We went in the main entrance, past the armed
policeman with an AK-47 resting in his lap, and up the main doors where we were
greeted by yet another kind Rwandan woman, who was also pursuing her masters
thesis in peace studies.  I am continually
impressed that these women are able to do these jobs, to sit next to the mass
graves and memorials day in and day out, to constantly repeat the history.  It takes a certain mental strength which I
cannot imagine.  

 We stood outside the main gain and the guide said she would
give us a brief overview and then she would let us wander through the church on
our own.  Standing in the foyer of the
church she showed us where the first grenade had broken through the door.  Then she pointed to the ceiling, which was
pocked with bullet holes and smattered with blood.  She said that inside, the church was left in
its original condition and much like Ntarama, the pews are covered with the
clothes of the victims.  She said there
was also a small basement, accessible from the inside, where there were some
remains and also the coffin of a women who was raped and murdered with a stick
in the manner described previously.  

Jean and I entered and both took a moment’s pause.  The church could probably hold thousands of
people for services.  It was massive,
especially compared to the previous one and every single pew was covered in
stacks of clothes.  The garments varied
in color, but through dust and time they had all been rendered a similar shade
of brown.  We walked down the aisles and
stopped at the front row of the church, just before the altar.  Jean murmured “le chemise d’enfant” and
pointed to small red and white striped shirt that belonged to a baby of no more
than eight or nine months.  

We walked up to the altar that had a few different artifacts
from the war, including a Tutsi passbook.
Jean explained to me about the passbooks they were forced to carry,
which identified their ethnicity.  We
stood for a moment in silence.  On the
drive to Nyamata, we had discussed how the more places you visit, the more of
this you witness, its harder to have a reaction – and for Jean he lives in the
aftermath of this.  I had yet to cry and
didn’t want to be the first one to do so.
To cry while he, a citizen of this country managed to keep his
composure, somehow seemed wrong.  

Next we turned down the steps of that lead to the
basement.  Floor to ceiling the basement
was covered in white bathroom tile.  A
few halogen lights twitched above us, giving off the sterile and discomforting
sense of how I imagine a morgue.  On a
glass shelf in front of us there were, the once again neatly organized, skulls
and bones of about fifty people.  Below
was the coffin of the women killed, covered in intricate white lace, with a
cross resting on top.  The door to the
case was either missing or never there in the first place, so hypothetically
one could reach forward and touch the skulls. Hanging from the wire frame of
the shelving was another myriad of sparking rosaries, which honored every color
imaginable.  

 My breath quickened and I put my hand to my chest. I tried
to focus on breathing.  I turned to Jean,
he nodded at me and then mounted the stairs to the main room.  He let me alone so that I could break
down.  In the privacy of the white room,
just me and the remains, I began to cry again.
Softly at first, and then the tears ran from my eyes in an
uncontrollable manner.  I stayed down
there for only a few minutes, but it felt much longer.  I kept looking at the bones, unsure of how I
was supposed to respond.  I hummed the
Mourners Kaddish to myself, wiped away the tears, and walked up into the main
room of the church.  I had managed to
regain myself, when I walked by the little red and white infant’s shirt from
earlier.  A whimper escaped my mouth and
tears fell again.

We exited the building, and met the guide again.  She told us to make our way around to the
back of the building, where the mass graves were, and that upon our return she
would provide an explanation.  We walked
back to see three rows of the grey concrete rectangles, ornamented with single
roses, white lilies, and the grey fabrics of remembrance.   There
had been silence between us for a while until Jean said “C’est dommage” which
translates to “what shame.”  Our guide
told us that 50,000 people were buried in the mass graves, who had been killed
inside the church and in the surrounding area.

I thanked her, signed the guest book, and left a
donation.  We walked out of the church,
past the policeman with the AK-47, and back to Jean’s taxis for the hour long
drive back to Kigali.  On the way to the
car we passed a sign, with a phrase in Kinyarwandan, that is commonly used in
the reconciliation process here.  It said
“If you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.”