Monthly Archives: January 2009

Tales from Algeria


It’s been a week since I got back from Algeria and I haven’t had time to write about it yet! It was good, on the whole. I had moments where I wondered why I was there, not being able to communicate with anyone because of the language barrier, spending a lot of time sitting around while women talk, looking from one speaker to the next, as if to give the impression I am a part of things… or else reading or listening to my ipod in my room… while hubby is downstairs hanging with his brothers in the shop that one of them runs out of the ground floor, helping lift stock etc. But we had some interesting trips out, although fewer than before since the people who used to take us out (you need a car to get anywhere) are married and busy now. One of the main reasons I went, I think, was to challenge myself and test whether I can spend a couple of weeks there and not go crazy, which I did (I am pleased to report that one incident of dodgy stomach did not spiral into panic-ridden abstention from food) and deal with missing out on Christmas and New Year, which I was sad about but again, I passed my own test. (I stayed up watching TV on hogmanay hoping for fireworks, but a political talk show about Palestine ran all the way up to midnight, at which point there was a shot of an Algerian flag blowing in the wind, the national anthem was played… and that was it! I don’t even know if it was a New Year thing or if they show that every night at midnight!)

There are some things about life there that are very desirable. Close extended families seem to be great for children, who get loads of attention and encouragement, as well as for the adults. My brother-in-law and his wife live on one floor of the house, which is effectively a self-contained apartment with bathroom and kitchen, with their 1-year-old daughter, and while he spends all day in the shop downstairs, she has the option of enjoying her own space (she generally chooses to cook their meals rather than eating with the others upstairs) and also of spending a bit of time with her mother- and sister-in-law whenever she wants some company, or even passing the baby upstairs to granny for an hour or two so she can have some time to herself. I think it’s quite nice that way, although the downside is that closer families can interfere with your life more!

The food is amazing, and I can’t tell whether it’s the fresh natural ingredients, the culinary expertise, or a combination of these. One thing that is markedly different from here is the way they shop. There are no big supermarkets, which takes some wrapping your head around when that is what you’re used to, but as my mum pointed out that is how it was here a few decades ago. They may do a weekly big shop at the market, but there is no need for painstaking planning ahead of the week’s meals; partly because they are skilful enough to concoct a meal out of whatever they happen to have in the house, and partly because getting additional ingredients on an ad-hoc basis is not a problem as you are never far away from local shops selling veg, meat, and non-perishables. This is the biggest difference. I did not see the separation we have between residential areas and shopping areas – it is all mixed up. It made me realise how much easier I would find it to cook every day if I was able to pick up a few things on the way home, rather than make the effort required to plan everything at the weekend and do a big shop when you’re tired and really just want to do nothing.

I have been inspired to cook some of the Algerian recipes I’ve picked up, be more imaginative in creating dishes (it amazes me how effortless cooking every day seems to be for them; the key is keeping it simple I think), and use local shops more. There is a new fruit and veg shop halfway between my flat and work, so I’ve started buying things there as it’s quite good value too. It’s really the only convenient local shop (apart from the Tesco Express which is too extortionate and limited in range of products to be useful for much) so I hope it stays open a long time! The other big thing I realised was how much of a control freak I am about keeping my environment clean and tidy. Living with extended family, and having other extended family turn up and join in at the weekend, would keep that in check. I’d be so uncomfortable though… their kitchen, while being reasonably hygienic, is almost never “clean” cos it’s continually in use!

We visited the old apartment where my husband grew up one evening, where another brother-in-law is now living with his wife and kid. It is on the 13th (top) floor of a tower block, and I was quite freaked out climbing the (manky) stairs as I could see through gaps in the wood panels just how high up we were. Even when we got inside it took me a while to forget about the fact that I was very high up. I can’t even begin to imagine experiencing a strong earthquake there, as they did in the 1980s.

The apartment had two bedrooms and a living room, bathroom, kitchen and a little balcony. None of the rooms were very big and it was amazing to think that a family of 8 once lived there. Hubby tells me the 6 of them as kids were bunched in one room like sardines, they didn’t even have proper beds. When they got older the boys took to sleeping in the living room. It’s funny how in the UK, the word poverty seems to have two different meanings – one for here, one for the rest of the world. No-one here would accept living like this. We think being born in a developed country gives us special rights I guess.