I do not have a Mediterranean temperament. Not for me the mañana mentality or the happily chaotic lifestyle of those who live on the shores of mare nostrum. No, I am a product of my upbringing and my no-nonsense Northern roots. So when I went out to Algeria, something had to give. It was me.
I have already described my battle with a strange type of agoraphobia during the first few years in Algeria, but a new phenomenon was to later rear its head. This time it was a pressing need to bring about some — any — sense of order to my daily life. It was the only way I could get through the days without wanting to bang my head in frustration against the walls.
I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that routine brings reassurance with it. For children, the same nightly ritual — bath, story, bed — has a calming and comforting effect. For adults, sitting on the same seat on the Tube, buying their newspaper from the same newspaper kiosk, eating the same sandwich for lunch — act almost like a tranquilliser in the whirling sound and fury of the modern city.
The sheer unpredictability of life in Algeria could fray my nerves at the best of times. By contrast, many Algerians thrived on the lack of routine and almost seemed to seek it out. A joke doing the rounds was that it was lucky that the weather in Algeria depended on climatic conditions and not on its citizens, otherwise we wouldn’t have enjoyed so many sunny days. We would have woken up every morning wondering what meteorological event would occur that day. An electrical storm? Perhaps hailstones? Why not a hurricane to liven things up?
The postal service, the power and water supplies, telecommunications, flight arrivals and departures, administrative procedures and decisions — even some people — were totally unreliable. After a while, I began to realise that this was often deliberate. Inefficiency, incompetence and sheer laziness — a multitude of sins — could be covered up more easily when there was no clear set of rules for anything. I came to loathe a phrase in darija that was trotted out all the time, whatever the circumstances, accompanied usually by a confident smile; “Makesh meshkeela!” (No problem!) It usually meant there was going to be one.
Sometimes the lack of transparency constituted a means of coercion for some unscrupulous people. A case in point was the the Algerian colleague in charge of obtaining residency and work permits for foreign instructors when I was working for an American university contracted to the IAP (Institut algérien du Pétrole). I was the one responsible for requesting personal details and documents from the instructors as she didn’t speak English — a necessary requirement for someone working for an American company, I would have thought, but then what do I know?
Every week the list of documents required changed and, however closely I followed it, there was always a paper missing. I pleaded with her in vain to give me a complete list, but was always met with a refusal. Every week I would receive an irate phone call: “You’ve forgotten to send me a copy of the birth certificate/marriage lines/photocopy of passport/spouse’s passport!” It was only later I realised that therein resided her power. Not only did she get to lord it over me and impress our American employers, who knew no better, but she appeared to be the competent one, whilst I was the inefficient idiot always forgetting what was required.
So what could I do to create a haven of peace and stability for my family and myself in the midst of all this chaos? I could ensure that my own little corner of the world was in perfect order. I could ensure that the children’s clothes were always laundered and ready for school, their rooms clean and tidy, and their bedtime and mealtimes as regular as possible. I could ensure that there was a place for everything and that everything was in its place. In other words, I became a neat freak.
Of course, this might seem slightly controlling to you, and it does to me in hindsight. My insistence on a set bedtime for my children, even when it was still light outside, was incomprehensible to most Algerians, including members of my own family. They would let their own children run around until all hours until they collapsed, exhausted, on the floor or sofa, to be then scooped up by their parents and put to bed in the same clothes they had worn all day.
T was in two minds about this. He had been brought up by a loving, but chronically disorganised mother, in a home with no set routine at all. His laundry was never done; he slept in beds with no sheets; the only thing of which he could be sure, given my mother-in-law’s passion for food, was that he would have three meals a day, plus a snack in the afternoon. Even though the evening meal was always couscous, it was hot and there was plenty of it.
So a smoothly-run household was a revelation to him, although he himself had always been reasonably well-organised and could be bitingly critical when something was not entirely to his liking. A well-ordered home environment brought reassurance to him as well, in a way, and he could relax in the knowledge that there would be no domestic crisis over the sudden realisation that the coffee had run out.
On the other hand, the whole messy, noisy, endearing Algerian spontaneity that made life so colourful was sacrificed. I am sure my husband would have preferred it if I had loosened up from time to time and not fretted so much about whether we had enough beds, bed linen and food whenever we had unexpected guests, instead of just enjoying their company. But I felt that if I lost control for one second, everything would fall apart. A little like the air passenger who daren’t fall asleep, convinced that his constant vigilance is the only thing keeping the plane in the air.
Sometimes, I had the impression that I was like King Canute trying to hold back the tide of chaos that would, inevitably, start to lap around my feet. At other times, I felt like T’s mother who once, when overwhelmed by events during a catastrophic family wedding, had started carefully cleaning a corner of the table. The rest of the table was overflowing with leftover food, dirty dishes and watermelon rinds. Stunned, we watched as she wiped the same square foot of table surface over and over again, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around her.
On reflection, I now realise that, apart from a certain genetic disposition towards tidiness and order, I was suffering from a mild anxiety disorder, and that my obsession with organisation was classic reassurance-seeking behaviour. I was trying to explain this to my adult daughter a few years ago and told her that it had helped me survive. “But, Maman,” she said, “Don’t you realise? It helped us too.”