Finding My Footing

Greetings! And thank you for your comments on my last post – it means a lot to me to hear from people back home!

I’m in the city of Porto-Novo right now where pre-service training has begun. First up is language and culture immersion, so we are staying with host families and taking French classes 7 hours a day, five and half days a week. I have to say, I’m finding I love it and hate it for the same reasons. The rapid integration and language competency that result from a good immersion experience cannot be achieved any other way, and yet sometimes I just want it to go away! I want a break from having to think so hard about everything.

The first time we went walking around to try to practice conversing in French with local people, I got really flustered and couldn’t understand a thing being said to me. It made me feel so discouraged, because after 4 years of French in high school and a year in college, you’d think I could have a simple conversation! But Beninese street French is a lot different than French French, and it wasn’t easy. My instructor, Aurélien, must have noticed my mood and reminded me that, “Petit a petit l’oiseaux fait son nid.” Little by little, the bird makes its nest. Taking things one day at a time, I will make steady progress.

If I pass the French proficiency test before August (I can do it!), then I will likely begin learning a local language, as assigned by my program manager. After language training, each stagière (trainee) will make a two-week visit to their future work site, and finally, we’ll all return to Porto-Novo for the technical training. But though that is still a ways off, I’ve already learned all sorts of handy dandy little tricks, like how to ride a bicycle in dress without letting your knees show (which would be a little scandalous).

Cleanliness is a big deal in Benin. It’s ironic because on the one hand you see garbage all over the streets, but on the other hand, people sweep the whole house everyday (loudly, usually between 5 and 6 in the morning) and are otherwise very keen on being neat and tidy. Sunday is laundry day. Now, I’ve hand-washed my clothes before, but based on experience I figured my host mom would want to show me how she does it, so I washed my clothes with the family last Sunday. My host mom kept saying “More soap!” and I tried to resist, but it was futile. I knew my clothes were dirty, but I’m telling you, there was way too much soap going around. Those buckets looked absolutely rabid, frothing all over the place. By the end of the afternoon I had some nice crispy clean clothes. Then just as I got them all hung up to dry, it began to pour. C’est la vie.

Also this past weekend, I went to the market. I didn’t know what to expect, and I was completely blown away. It’s spectacular! I hadn’t seen any stores in Porto-Novo yet, so I was kind of wondering where people, like, buy stuff, but then I discovered le grand marché. You can buy anything and everything at the market. I could have very easily gotten lost somewhere in those narrow passages, but I was with my host mom, who knew exactly where to find what she was looking for – fabric for a dress, spicy peppers, a new straw mat, eggs. The market has it all. Oh, and animals. Any kind of animal you might want – dead or alive. Or, select it alive, then come back ten minutes later and pick it up dead. Comme vous voulez. As you like it.

When I’m home in the evenings, I usually try to get a little exercise in. I’m not sure if people really go running around here, and at any rate I’d probably get lost, so for now I’m just using a laundry line to jump rope in the yard. Soccer of course is quite popular so I occasionally kick the ball around with my host brothers, too. Then I finish off the evening with dinner and studying. By the time I’m ready to call it a day, I’m so tired I can hardly keep my eyes open :)

Till next time,
Heidi

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12 Responses to Finding My Footing

  1. Pastor Daniel GBETOMEY, from Porto-Novo says:

    J’ai été très ravi d’avoir discuté avec toi et Lauren au moment ou vous vous promeniez dans mon quartier. Depuis ce temps j’ai gardé ton nom Heidi.
    Comment vas-tu Heidi ? Et Lauren ? J’ai beaucoup aprécié votre aptitude à parler le français. N’oubliez pas de passer encore dans le quartier dès que vous avez l’occasion.

    Daniel GBETOMEY

  2. Sindri says:

    Oh PST :) It sounds like you’re having an amazing time observing, learning, experiencing and absorbing the new environment. My best tips for the language are (1) listen a lot, and (2) laugh at yourself. You don’t have to be perfect when you speak, just intelligible! After 18 months, I’m still making silly mistakes (liking mixing up the words for gift and snake).

    I’m praying for you every day, knowing the stresses and challenges that accompany the excitement of training. Keep pressing on, even when you’re tired – it’s worth it!

    Sindri

    • Heidi says:

      Sindri! I have to send a letter to you… just as soon as I figure out where the post office is and how to get there :) Thanks for the encouragement!

  3. Anne Lee says:

    Dear Heidi,
    I very much enjoy reading your blog, especially since I don’t know very much about Belin, and also because I was a high school French teacher when we lived in Japan. I am sensitive to how different each patois can be, and I can tell that you are working very hard to meet your language goals and to fit into the culture. We have been having such hot weather here at Ponto. Our daughter, Marit, and two of our grandchildren, Vic and I went to see Ice Age (#4) at the Bear Pause in Hackensack tonight, since they have A/C there, and Jack, who is four, wanted to see it. It was fun! We all laughed out loud. I was sorry that we didn’t invite your grandparents to see it, too, as I think they would have enjoyed it. This was my first Ice Age movie. Last week, we had an unexpected encounter and overnight guest with a delightful young Nigerian, whom we met at the new Thai restaurant in Hackensack. He is a recent grad from Mankato State U., whose car broke down in Hackensack, had slept in his car one night, in a local motel another night, but he is very much felt like an outsider there, so we invited him to stay with us. It was a treat for us, and I think he also enjoyed Lake Ponto, once we got him through the woods. He is pretty much of an urban fellow, having lived in Mpls from the age of 12 or 13. It is fun to follow your blog in Africa, and at the same time read the blog of our granddaughter, Lindsey Lee, who is in Norway, working and studying. Lindsey will be a junior at St. Olaf in the fall. Your grandparents are very proud of you, Heidi, and we enjoy hearing all about your through them. Please know that we are keeping you in our prayers. Bonne chance a vous! With love, Anne and Victor Lee

  4. Karen Torghele says:

    Dear Heidi,
    You are such a good writer that it’s easy to picture your daily life with all it’s interesting and challenging parts. Thanks for keeping us in the loop.
    We had a great time at Paul and The-Other-Heidi’s wedding last weekend. We got to know John’s wife, Annie and she is really nice. We also went birding at Sax-Zim Bog north of Duluth with a guide named Erik Brunkhe (age 26). He thought he knew you from the Raptor Center. He was such a great guide and an excellent teacher. We got three lifers; Black-Back Woodpecker, Olive-Sided Flycatcher, and Black-Billed Cuckoo! Do you mind if I share your website and contact info with him? Love, Karen

    • Heidi says:

      Hi Karen! Yay birding! I keep seeing neat birds around here but haven’t done any real birding yet. Soon. I don’t think I know an Erik Brunkhe (?) but go ahead and share my website and contact info. Let me know if you have any success with those bird calls in Georgia!

  5. Julie Hunt says:

    Hi Heidi –
    Thanks for posting on your blog. It will be fun to live in Benin through you, yet have my handy washer and dryer! I was thinking about our Boundary Waters trip the other day and how easy that trip must now seem in comparison to your current trip. God knows how to prepare you doesn’t He! I am quite confident that you will get the language down and pass your proficiency test with flying colors. It will come so natural that one day soon you will be walking through the market and understanding what everyone is saying and not thinking anything of it. I know it is winter there now. How hot is it? Glad to see that you have internet access. That makes correspondence so much easier. Do you have the ability to attach pictures to your blog? I envision that Benin is similar to The Gambia that I visited in March. A small country that does not have allot of economic resources yet the people are quite friendly and hospitable. You will continually be in my prayers. Blessings, Julie

    • Heidi says:

      Hi Julie! I always think fondly of that Boundary Waters trip and hope to do something like that again sometime. It’s pretty hot and humid here right now, but I think it has actually been hotter in Minnesota than here for the past couple weeks! I am hoping to get posted somewhere farther north where it is dryer. Let me know if you’re making any more trips to West Africa in the next couple years!

  6. Grandma and Grandpa says:

    Hi Heidi,

    What fun to hear from you and your blog is so interesting. We continue to marvel at your ambitions and hope that it is not too hard for you. We know that you always want to do things exactly as they should be done.

    As far as traveling or walking alone, is that a good idea?? Should you not be with someone for safety reasons? We love you so much that we want everything for the best for you. God Bless.

    Today is another nice day at Ponto and we are watersealing the back deck. It should dry well as there is a nice breeze and sunshine. Steve, Amy and Brandon as well as your parents are coming at the end of next week for a few days. We look forward to that. We miss you of course. Next week our Seniors group from St. Michaels, Bloomington are coming this way and we will join them at the Woodtick Theater and German restaurant after. Should be fun evening. It will be a busy week so hope weather is pleasant.

    Keep those nice blogs coming as they are so interesting. Grandpa says,”Miss you big bunch”. We pray daily for you, Heidi. Our love,

    Grandma and Grandpa

    • Heidi says:

      Bet you didn’t expect such a quick reply, did you? I have internet all evening so I saw your post. As to your question about safety – I never travel or walk around alone. So, when I talk about walking around the market or in the community, you can assume that I am with other people, usually my language instructor and at least one other Peace Corps trainee :)

  7. Holly Anderson says:

    Well I particularly enjoyed the part about animals. Except of course, I would not wish to see them dead in all their furry and feathery forms. And the clothes washing! Maybe that’s how you really get your whites white and your brights bright. Thank goodness for nice rain to take care of the extra soap.

    Bring us home an animal exotique. You know, we never have enough animals around here. lv, mm

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