SOME DAYS THE BUGS not to mention the ubiquitous dirt and paralyzing heat really, really bugged me. These bugs were like no other bugs I’d ever known. They were more than brazen pests; they were terrorists and tormentors. They knew the power of their numbers. They knew, despite their diminutive individual size, that they could do-in seemingly superior human beings.
Just one hungry mosquito’s bite in the night could bring with it potentially deadly malaria. (Fortunately, we PCVs were supplied with costly prophylactics to help prevent such an outcome.) One bott fly could lay her eggs in your wet laundry, and those eggs could burrow like living, breathing, growing boils into your skin. One foo-roo, smaller than a pinhead, could give you a mysterious, debilitating arbovirus. Another, day-biting mosquito, could take you down with dengue fever, for which no treatment exists.
But even beyond the health threats they posed, these ever-present legions of tropical insects were just plain monumentally infuriating to me. When my hands were too busy to swat them, for example, such as when I was kneading bread or digging in my nascent garden, the bugs would take the most advantage. Big, black flies would saunter across the lenses of my eyeglasses, blurring my vision. Other, smaller, bugs would crawl up my nose. Still more would fly into my ears, demonically jangling my nerves with their high-pitched whine. Foo-roos ate at my ankles, wrists, neck wherever some sweet skin was exposed to them leaving red, itchy welts that I scratched until they bled and then soon became infected.
Perhaps because I refused to cover myself from scalp to foot with it or put it, godforbid, inside my ears commercial insect repellant was next to useless to me. Like most modern remedial products on the international market, store-bought repellants clearly weren’t designed with Africa in mind. Perhaps the Africans were inured to the bugs’ annoyance. Or maybe their skin was not as thin as mine. Or, perhaps, they had their own, time-tested, traditional remedes that repelled insects fairly successfully; if so, they remained a well-kept secret to me. Consequently, there were days when and I couldn’t even admit this weakness to my maman Leora privately, within the confines of my own solitary existence there, the bugs got me down.
AND NOT ONLY THAT. My inability to communicate with the local people in French was even more disheartening to me. To learn to speak fluent French at last after nearly thirty-five years (since high school) of false starts and unsuccessful attempts through dry textbooks, tedious cassette tapes, and brief trips to Paris had been a major motivating factor in my decision to join the Peace Corps and serve in a Francophone African country in the first place.
I had learned to speak culinary French when I changed careers ten years before. After my mother died, I used some of the inheritance she left me to attend a summer course at La Varenne, a well-known cooking school then in Paris, as the first step in becoming a food professional in New York. My mother had been a wonderful cook, and I, as the eldest daughter, her helper and disciple, had learned how to cook at her knee. I saw that my cooking had made her happy during the two years cancer cells slowly destroyed her brain and ultimately took her life, so I knew she would approve of this risky career change, this potentially gratifying use of her gift.
To recover from my mother’s cancer as well as from a broken wedding engagement to a colleague whom I’d mistakenly believed was Mr. Right I took a leave of absence from my stressful job as a writer-editor in New York and stayed with a friend in Paris that summer. As my heart gradually healed, I fell in love with all things French especially the sense of style and timeless beauty, the respectful love and appreciation for true food, and the supremely symphonic language.