Neat Freak

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.

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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.”

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Agoraphobia

The title of this post is somewhat of a misnomer. I did not develop full-blown agoraphobia in Algeria, but something approaching it. Looking back, I think it was probably linked to the panic attacks I had experienced before going out to Algeria for good. All the anxiety I had tried to suppress about moving out there had led to a spate of dizzy spells. I never actually fainted, but constantly felt on the verge of doing so.

Things improved to a certain extent once I actually set foot back in Algeria. Of course, it helped my state of mind being with T. again, but I would often tremble with apprehension when I had to go outside. The first few months had been fine, with all the bustle and excitement of our wedding and the lazy days spent afterwards on the beach in lieu of a honeymoon, but once left on my own, with T. at work and my mother and sister back in Britain, I found it more and more difficult to leave the safety of the flat.

Perhaps the fact that I had just fallen pregnant had had something to do with it. I only know that I had to force myself to take the rickety lift down to the ground floor and cross the street to the grocer’s. People, of course, would turn around to look at me in curiosity and men would mutter to each other as I passed by, drawing on their cigarettes as they eyed me up.

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Even when T. was with me, he couldn’t put a reassuring arm around my waist or hold my hand. Public demonstrations of affection between couples were just not accepted in polite Algerian society. I don’t think Algerian wives expected them anyway, as most marriages were arranged and not love matches. They probably would have been embarrassed, thinking their husbands were shaming them in front of others. A woman being touched in public was considered no better than a prostitute.

So when T. and most of my neighbours were at work, I spent most of my time looking out of the living-room window of our eighth-floor flat on to the street scenes below. A bit like Rapunzel, really. There was always a lot of hustle and bustle in the street, although it was situated on the eastern outskirts of the city, quite a way from the centre.  There were several small shops just across the street and facing the main road – two bakeries, a butcher’s, a chemist’s and two grocer’s shops. Everything within a stone’s throw. And yet I still found it difficult to go outside.

I watched with curiosity the wraith-like figures of women wrapped in their white haïks flitting to and fro, heavy baskets full of groceries dangling from one hand. Just one eye would be showing through the folds of cloth pulled across their faces and held tight in the other hand.  Young men in jeans and t-shirts lounged around, smoking and talking. Small children played on the dusty playground in front of the block of flats on playground equipment that was shabby and broken, the swings lacking seats and the see-saw snapped in two.

The cries of street vendors drifted up to me in my ivory tower.They would be dressed, almost to a man,  in the traditional male seroual (baggy trousers with the crotch at knee-level) and a length of orange or yellow brocaded cloth wound around their heads. Trundling along the cracked pavements,  they would pull behind them handcarts filled with fresh green vegetables, on which the water drops glittered like crystals in the morning sunlight.

Not only were the cries of street vendors to be heard, but the incessant barking of dogs and surprisingly, cocks crowing, not just at daybreak, but at all times of the day. From time to time throughout the day, the call to prayer from a nearby mosque would float in through the window on the hot still air, marking out the passing hours. It all seemed so alien.

The people on the street seemed to have no volume control, and I could easily make out their conversations without understanding a word. Conversations were usually accompanied by expressive hand gestures and much waving of arms. I had become used to the noise generated by a group of Algerians at full throttle back in Sheffield, but this was overwhelming.

Sometimes, in the evening, sitting at the window waiting for T to come home, his arrival heralded by the white beam of the Austin’s headlights piercing the gathering shadows, I would marvel at the beautiful colours – magenta,  topaz and pale pink, rimmed with gold – splashed by the dying rays of the sun on the sky behind the darker bulk of the Aïdour mountain dominating the west of the city. The only light I could make out on the mountain would be a solitary spotlight, twinkling like a star, close to the Basilica of Santa Cruz.

T. had bought me a kaftan, not the silver and black wedding one, but one to wear outside and cover my burgeoning stomach. It was easy to throw on, even over pyjamas or a nightdress.  Sometimes, in the deep recesses of my baby brain, there dawned a foggy realisation that I was letting myself go, both physically and mentally. Not as much as some, however.

One morning, feeling particularly brave, I hazarded a trip to the grocer’s. The shopkeepers were always friendly and welcoming, explaining things and helping me with the strange currency. Coming out of the shop, I noticed a group of women walking up the incline towards the second block of flats. They were shepherding along another woman in their midst, forming a protective wall around her.

They looked exactly like a platoon of soldiers carrying out a military operation or sheepdogs chivvying along a particularly recalcitrant sheep. She was looking neither right nor left – just staring in front of her like a zombie. I  suddenly recognised the blond hair and spectacles of one of our university friends and, with a cry of joy, rushed towards her.

On hearing me call her name, she turned her head and looked at me blankly, barely acknowledging my presence. Her head then snapped back so she was facing forward again. Her sisters-in-law, as they turned out to be, clustered around her as if to shield her from my unwelcome advances, turning a hostile glare on me. Surprised and shaken, I took a step back, and let the procession move on without another word. I suddenly realised how lucky I had been. Not only had T. not imposed a new code of conduct on me, but neither had my family-in-law. Any prison of mine was of my own making.

The situation improved dramatically once our daughter was born and we moved to our new house in the Clos. Here were surrounding to which I could relate – a low, flat-roofed white bungalow with huge French windows looking out onto a tree-lined gated compound. I felt less like a fish out of water, and gradually my strange agoraphobia wore off to some extent. I began work a few years later and to drive a car around Oran and Arzew with absolutely no problems at all. I also realised it wasn’t true agoraphobia, because, during holidays taken back in Britain, my mother was hard pressed to keep me indoors.