On Thursday, Adam and I were en route to the Algiers airport, all set to take the delightfully quick flight to Valencia to join our friends for Fallas festival, when the U.S. Embassy Algiers (aka our employer) called and said if we went to Spain – a country with a growing number of Coronavirus cases – we’d have to stay in our house for 14 days in isolation upon return.
Now I really like our Mediterranean digs here in Algiers, but having to stay indoors for 14 days of confinement seemed too intense a price to pay for a trip to Spain. Not to mention if we willingly got on that plane, we’d be judged negatively by our colleagues for making the choice to not show up at work for two weeks all because we wanted a Spanish vacation. And we did want a Spanish vacation! (I mean, I was just there, but still). Especially Adam, who has been working a ton lately with no breaks. He was going to continue on after the weekend with his friend, who was supposed to have flown in from San Francisco for a weeklong Spanish roadtrip. Instead, the San Francisco friend didn’t get on his transatlantic flight, and we turned around on the Algerian highway and headed home, ate the cost of our plane tickets, our Airbnb, and our dreams of sipping Spanish wine in the sunshine with our good friends whom we haven’t seen in some time. A few of them did make it to Valencia where the city’s annual festival was cancelled for the first time since WWII. They’re still having a good time, but worried about how they’ll get home in light of the Trump announcement suspending most travel from Europe and the recommendation that anyone traveling to Europe is quarantined for two weeks upon return.
So instead, we spent the weekend at home, watching movies (the new Little Women, finally, and it was so, so good!), and eating a very nice Spanish-inspired dinner under the blossoming orange tree in our yard. Yesterday, we met our friend for a seafood (yeah, I eat shrimp and bivalves now) and wine lunch near the sea. (Well, behind a privacy gate because there was wine, but still we were knew we were near the water thanks to the flocks of seagulls circling overhead). It’s no Spanish festival, but it was a very nice weekend in Algiers.
This is such a weird time in our history. I check Facebook and read all virus news just like everyone else. I see parents struggle to know how to homeschool for the weeks ahead, and worry about running out of toilet paper, which is the new gold. I see the stripped-bare shelves at Trader Joe’s (my friend posted a picture of a few fresh artichokes being the only thing left at the Trader Joes. People are even buying artichokes! A vegetable that is a whole lot of work for very little payoff but this is the time to learn to cook a whole artichoke if there ever was one).
But it’s not like that here, because there are some major differences in Algeria compared with the United States. First, there are only a few dozen confirmed Coronavirus cases in Algeria, but that’s not saying a whole lot because they aren’t testing too many people. (As far as I know, there aren’t official confirmed cases in Algiers, the capital, where we live). There are theories that the virus doesn’t thrive in warm weather and it’s been about 65 F/19 C lately in Algiers. At first, some Algerians were distrustful that the virus even came to Algeria at all and accused the government of fabricating cases to deflect attention. That doesn’t seem to be the case now and the government has closed schools and cultural events (like a classical music concert scheduled at the opera house for tonight).
My new job at the U.S. Embassy is affected too. I oversee a cultural center/library/gathering space in the embassy that opens it doors to basically any Algerian who wants to come in and be exposed to American culture and language. That’s dozens of people a day, fresh off public transportation, sitting at a big table, touching keyboards, speaking lot in close proximity to others…. you get the picture. Our embassy has closed that center until further notice.
As for the bare supermarket shelves, well grocery shopping is drastically different here in Algiers than it is in the U.S. There are a few large chain grocery stores in Algiers, but the shelves in those stores are always sparse and there isn’t much variety in product – picture an entire aisle with one brand of bar soap, laid out end to end. Much more common than stocking up at a big grocery store is doing what I do: Frequent trips to neighborhood stores called epiceries (or party stores, as we called ’em in Michigan) for groceries. These stores are all over the city, and while they look like they don’t contain much, they actually stock a surprising amount of goodies. So, most people go to a corner store, and also to the vegetable/fruit stand, the boulangerie or bread store, and the butcher and chicken store for meat. And I can tell you as of yesterday, the stores appear totally normal, abundantly stocked even. There is not a run on any one thing. Walking around my neighborhood, seeing every other man, woman, and child toting six baguettes under their arm, you might assume there’s a run on bread, but I assure you, that is just the norm. This is a city that loves its baguettes, but those baguettes need to be fresh.
What about toilet paper?! Is there toilet paper?! Well, that I don’t know because we actually shipped our tp from America as part of a big “consumables” shipment we were allotted. But people here are not freaking out because the toilet paper obsession the Western World has, laid ass bare by this pandemic, is just not a thing in most Eastern countries. Most every toilet here has a hose with a sprayer, a contraption I just learned is called a douchette which means “little shower.” And while I can’t pretend to understand how exactly that works – do you use your hand to scrub your butt? Is the power of the water enough? Don’t you just walk around with a wet butt afterwards? – I know that the omnipresence of the douchette means that people aren’t even discussing toilet paper. Well, Algerians aren’t. Americans are. I went into the bathroom at work this week and had to stall-hop until I found a single roll of toilet paper in one of the stalls. This is in a bathroom that gets serviced multiple times daily so I can only assume I came in right after an American had stolen all the rolls. As for us, I just checked our supply and can report that Adam and I are 12 Charmin Ultras away from using our douchettes for something other than washing my feet.
Obviously this is an evolving situation and everything could change tomorrow. But that’s where things stand today. Sending so much love and concern to everyone affected by this, which is to say, the world. And isn’t there something poignant about that sense of interconnectedness? I can’t recall a time in my life when people in every corner of the world were discussing and experiencing the same thing.
To staying safe and well,