What I’ll Miss About Algeria

I began writing this blog post looking back on all the good things about our three years in Algeria as Adam and I were minutes into our departure flight. Our plane — which, in addition to holding us and five large suitcases, also carried Gus and Boj, both of whom are really starting to showing their age — had just soared over the minaret (the tallest in Africa) of the Algiers mosque, which “opened” early in our stay, but somehow never really opened. We were leaving for America, where we haven’t really lived since we got married and moved to Yemen back in 2012. The past several difficult weeks in Algiers were still fresh in my mind: Me having a never-ending cold (allegedly not COVID, but I think it might have been, again), Adam being away in Ireland at an ultimate frisbee tournament for nearly two weeks, me packing up our beautiful Algiers house alone, finishing up work, saying goodbye to friends at nighttime parties and nursing the hangovers that resulted from those goodbyes, scrambling to throw an “Embassy Community Center Reveal” in the space I’d been designing for the past seven months. Those weeks were stressful and a little sad and culminated in several days spent with Adam in a nearly totally empty, echo-filled, filthy-from-packing house, sleeping on an embassy bed and sharing the single bath towel we’d left behind. So I was ready to get on the plane and fly on to the next part of life.

And now here I am in Princeton, New Jersey, putting final touches on this blog post in a coffee shop. An honest to goodness American coffee shop. I’m thrilled to be here and feeling like the cornucopia of American delights and conveniences are mine for the sampling. More on this soon! But for now, Algeria was a really great place to live for three years. I liked it much more more than I expected to. Here’s what I’ll miss the most:

The Grocery Shopping: Even as I fantasize about my first grocery trip back in America and what I’ll buy – Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, pre-washed bagged lettuce, coconut water – I know I’ll remember fondly for the rest of my life how I grocery shopped in Algeria.

Back when we arrived in 2019, how we’d feed ourselves was at first confounding. Not only were there seemingly no good restaurants, but the grocery stores appeared poorly-stocked and tiny. Our embassy organized a trip to a large grocery store and I was shocked at how big the store was in comparison to how little variety there was. There was an entire aisle of just one brand of bar soap! And the brand was ISIS. The produce section was pitiful. I had an Instagram post from July of 2019 that asked “Where are all the vegetables in Algeria?”

It took me a few weeks, but I realized all the vegetables are at Premier Mai, the huge everyday indoor/outdoor market housed in a giant Soviet-style concrete structure painted with in multi-color pastels. But for most Algiers folks, the produce is actually at the many small fruit and vegetable stores located every few blocks. And the quality is top-notch, the selection seasonal. Peach and nectarines season is resplendent, when the cherries come, boy to they come. The plump figs are a sight to behold for about three weeks. As almost everything is local, the variety is not huge but it’s sufficient for someone who loves to cook to make almost anything, or at least discover apt substitutes. (Did you know that purple cabbage, sautéd in butter and miso, finished with a little maple syrup, tastes almost exactly the same as the maple-miso Brussels sprouts I make when in the U.S.? Also: carrots, when roasted until nearly caramelized, very closely resemble a sweet potato fry in both appearance and taste). The guys at my vegetable stand came to know me well, and like me well enough, especially after I brought Adam and he spoke to them in Arabic. They were always throwing in a few treats – some plums, some oranges, some dates – probably mostly because I had to have been their best customer, regularly paying upwards of $20 for a few imported avocados.

It wasn’t long before I discovered that grocery shopping in Algeria requires about three or four stops to get all your things. My standard route was the fruit and veg stand, then to Presque Isle Poissonerie where I’d buy a few filets of cod (if they had it), tuna, shrimp, swordfish chunks, sometimes a few pre-rolled shrimp bourek that I’d fry up later. Then, to Le Fournée Gourmond, the best boulangerie in Algiers where I’d get three rustic baguettes (a paltry number compared to how many baguettes Algerians buy in one go) and sometimes a few tiny molten lava cakes. Then, to the Superette Chetaouni, which is like a much smaller and less orderly American grocery store. It’s notoriously difficult to ship things in to Algeria — there are delays and there are rules on what one can ship (for instance, it’s currently against the law for importers to import certain things that are produced in Algeria already). So, much of what one can purchase at a superette arrived in Algeria via a suitcase. It’s not uncommon for Algerians arriving from trips abroad – from France and Spain, for instance – to be waiting at the baggage claim to collect their five, six, seven suitcases, bursting at the seams, from the belt. That means you might see a product in a grocery store one week and then not again for several months, and this was all exacerbated during COVID. But it also makes shopping at the Algerian superette rather exciting as you never know what you’ll find. (I’m such an optimist, aren’t I?). A few weeks ago, there was Schwepps ginger beer with chili and lime and I snapped up up a four-pack, and sometimes there is even feta cheese. The superette is also where I made some trial-and-error discoveries like that the local brand of creme fraiche is an apt stand-in for sour cream, the Algerian Ben Amour pasta is every bit as good as the pricier Barilla, and the red wax wrapped Holland-A brick of cheddar cheese is pretty good. (And I love me some cheddar cheese). 

I could write entire blog posts on grocery stores in foreign countries (and I have! Several times!) but one final grocery shopping observation: In three years in Algeria, I never once witnessed an ornery or rude encounter in the shops. I never heard anyone say “Hey, I was in line!” or yell at a shopkeeper, or complain about a product not being in stock. In fact, people are so pleasant when shopping that I often think about Americans pushing their carts through big grocery stores, stressed, or pissed off, or reacting to toddlers throwing tantrums. It’s not like that in Algeria. I don’t want to pretend it’s Pleasantville or anything. There’s very limited parking, nowhere to bag your groceries, the stores are not accessible to people with disabilities, and the overuse of plastic would astonish you. But grocery shopping in Algeria actually is quite pleasant and I’ll miss it.

Youyous: There is a joyous sound of female celebration in Algeria (and in a number of Middle Eastern countries) that I think everyone should know about. It’s called the youyou and it goes like this: Women do a continuous trilling of “you-you-you-you-you-you-you-you” often with one hand cupped on the upper part of the lips and it ends with a high-pitched “you-eeeeeeeeeeeee.” It’s dramatic and uproarious and I just have an enormous smile every time I hear it. It’s a sound of celebration and kind of a “you go girl” so it’s done during weddings, graduations, and you’d do it any time someone, often another female, is accomplishing something. At an embassy awards ceremony a few weeks ago, there were a few youyous (including one when I won an award!) Every Algerian woman is capable of a youyou that is astounding in both its range and length, but my favorite youyouer is my friend Selma. Not only is Selma a total champion of other Algerians and so she often celebrates people, sometimes by youyouing, but she’s also got a great voice and is a skilled linguist in Arabic, French, and English. I asked her to record a youyou when we were in a ravine, cliffs rising on either side, in the Algerian Sahara desert, just so I could post it on this blog, but I cannot find the audio file! I’m sorry to deprive the wider world of Selma’s youyou, but perhaps it’s for the best, because the youyou is such an organic sound of celebration that I get the feeling you’re not supposed to ask your Algerian friends to do it on cue.

I know there were at least a few youyous unleashed at this June party on our Algiers patio.

Kind, Open, Calm People: Every diplomat says the best part of wherever they’re living is “the people” but I swear I mean it about Algeria. Right away, Algerians invited us to dinner and they meant it. A few months back, I was at my desk at the embassy when security called and told me that someone was at the front with my wallet. A look in my bag confirmed I was indeed walletless. My colleague Khaled, who is a social media guru who became a beloved celebrity in Algeria, followed me outside, saying “this could be good for a reel!” A young guy had found my wallet on the ground in the nearby neighborhood of Sidi Yahia and seen my vaccination card inside, which is stamped with U.S. Embassy logo. I thanked him and Khaled made us film a little video in which he explained the situation and I said how I wasn’t surprised because this is how Algerians are. (The video went a little viral and I was thereafter often recognized as the “girl who lost her wallet.”) A real highlight of my three years was getting to sit next to a dozen Algerian colleagues (when we weren’t working from home). Their openness and generosity with in sharing with me their time, stories, opinions, and knowledge about Algeria helped so much in my understanding of and appreciation for Algeria.

This same sort of calm and generous vibe is also what makes the driving — which, to an untrained eye appears frenzied and lawless — actually quite manageable. Yes, there are packed little streets, no stop lights, signs, functional crosswalks, or written rules on the roads of Algiers. But the constant foot patrol police presence coupled with nice people makes driving if not easy, then at least a lot easier than it looks. Having to back up my car into a little nook to let other cars pass about a million times in the past three years was manageable because it was a rare day where someone made a rude or impatient gesture. You just do this time-consuming dance of shimmying your vehicle into whatever nook you can find to let a car squeak by with a neutral expression on your face and a little wave or nod to the other driver at the end. Often a pedestrian will come out and help direct the squeak-by. Each conflict-free time I did this – like five times each day – I’d think how such an interaction in the U.S. could go — drivers would probably make terrible faces, hand motions like “Go, you idiot!”, and swear a few times. Maybe even get in fights.

Most profound for me though, and probably most surprising, is how warm and open Algerians are. Algeria, especially the city of Algiers, experienced terrible violence at the hands of Islamic extremists in the 1990s, a time Algerians refer to as the Dark Decade. I’ve heard stories of a friend narrowly escaping being shot on the street. His childhood friend died. Women, intellectuals, artists were shot point-blank in the streets, one in the halls of the fine arts college. I figured that such a scary and sad past, from not too long ago, would have lingering effects of making the everyday Algerian closed, hesitant to talk to outsiders, not so willing to open up. But I’ve found the exact opposite to be true. One evening I was at a party in the home of an Algerian who owns a boutique. I’ll never forget eating Tipaza oysters in their backyard while they shared memories of going to clubs wearing whatever clothes they wanted as an act of resistance in the ’90s. Although I wasn’t cracking up along with them – I was more mouth agape, trying not to get stuck on French words I didn’t know – I recognized the way in which they told their side-splitting stories as way to process that oppressive and violent time.

I know family stories, embarrassments, achievements, fears, goals, cultural values, and more from many Algerians, and I feel so honored by that as someone who is interested in the interior lives of others and as a writer. Never before have we had so many local friends when we lived in a place: Certainly not Spain (where we never step foot in a Spanish person’s house), not Jerusalem, not Morocco. And it’s because Algerians are hospitable, generous, warm, and open. Algerian people are absolutely what I’ll miss the most about Algeria.

So those are the big three, but honorable mentions must go to our spacious, beautiful home; the excellent seafood in Algiers; the gorgeous colonial architecture of Centre Ville; the way Algiers – the White City – ascends from the Bay of Algiers; the many wonderful artists, musicians, designers, and creatives in Algeria who produce such beauty and are trying so hard to establish a thriving and professional cultural scene; the hilly little streets with dripping bougainvillea and wisteria; bathroom hoses; blue and grey stripped curtains hanging over balcony railings; Mount Chenoua rising from the Mediterranean Sea in Tipaza; crispy fried bourek; all the cats (so many cats!); handpainted tiles; the sweetness of Algerians being so close with their families (if they don’t live with their parents, they are speaking to their parents and siblings and maybe even cousins on the phone daily); the world class travel destination of Djanet; the gentle curves of the mosque domes, of the arched doorways, of the keyhole windows; monochromatic desert buildings; the languid daily calls to prayer.

Despite not living in Algeria any longer, I can’t quit it just yet. In the upcoming months, I’ll be doing blog posts on a few spots I traveled to included Constantine, the city of bridges; Ghardaia, home to an insular religious community and vintage rugs at low, low prices; Tlemcen, home to one of the world’s largest caves; and an incredible musical desert adventure of a lifetime in Taghit. And a post on how North African design has really influenced my own design aesthetic. And I’m already excited about writing Emily’s Guide to Algiers, with all my favorite shops, artisans, and things to eat. And, while I always prefer to focus on the positive, it’s also important to be to be honest and balanced, so there is a “What I Won’t Miss About Algeria” post in the works.

But for now, Algeria: I will truly miss you.

To Algeria,

Emily

3 Comments

  1. Emily, what a loving and evocative description that gives us a taste of your rich and varied life in this rarely visited, rarely mentioned country. I’m even more disappointed we couldn’t visit you while you were there but so happy for you both that you not only had access to these wonderful people and experiences but took full advantage of them. You and Adam are truly cultural adventurers. I look forward to the next chapter of your fascinating study! Laura

  2. Thanks so much, Laura. You and Dan especially would have loved Algeria, I know it. I’m sorry that you didn’t visit either. (And I blame COVID). But you’ll definitely visit us in Istanbul!

  3. You’re such a lovely writer. Enjoyed this glimpse into Algeria, from the girl who lost her wallet.

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