Sunday, November 30, 2014

What do deer and Algeria have in common? A Treehouse, of course!

            It took two years for Monet and Nadir to pay a second visit to Fern Forest. We’ve been following them on social media as they ride elephants in India, run half marathons, and go on ridiculously long bike tours, all the while smiling and laughing. And once again, they brought smiles and laughter to the Treehouse.
            Monet, named after the painter whose work her mother loves, showed up for breakfast on Saturday wearing a sweater with a buck on the front. I had to tell her that a neighbor had just shot a buck on our property that morning. She hadn’t heard the gunshots.
“Should I change my sweater?” she asked.
I told her if she wore a coat and a blaze orange cap, she’d be fine.
     Monet works with the EF foundation matching European   young folks with au pair jobs in the States. With her bubbly personality, I imagine she makes au pairs feel right at home in their new jobs.
Last year Nadir launched his own internet marketing business and works out of the third floor of their house in Boston. After two visits, I summoned the gumption to ask him about his name.
     “Is it Middle Eastern?” I asked. When I lived in Washington, D.C., my favorite restaurant was Mama Aysha’s because of their delicious Moroccan dishes.
      “No,” he said. “It’s Pied-Noir.”
      “Black feet?” The name sounded Native American.
      His family, Nadir explained, is from Algeria in French North Africa. The French ruled much of the region until 1962. Until then, ten percent of the population were non-Muslim, including Nadir’s family. I looked up the history of the Algerian War and got lost in the explanation of the FLN and MNA, but I gathered that the Pied-Noirs supported colonial French rule as opposed to Algerian nationalist groups, which included the Berbers and the Arab and Islamic cultures. The French Fourth Republic, as they were named, did not fare well in the war, and the conflict ended with a mass exodus of Algerian Europeans to France when Algeria gained independence.
      The annals of Algerian history are complex. The upshot, I gathered, is that after the war eight hundred thousand French Pied-Noirs left the country and a couple hundred thousand chose to stay in Algeria. Today only about fifty thousand Pied-Noirs remain.
      Life in France was no picnic, however. The Pied-Noirs were blamed for the war and were alienated both from their adopted country and their native homeland. I recall reading a story in college French class called “La Mort d’un Bicot.” The 1940 narrative follows an Algerian who enters France without the proper papers and lands in jail. When released, he jumps into the sea and his drowned body washes up on a beach at Dunkirk. No one knows the man, and no one cares about his death. Existentialism at its best.
      Switzerland, always neutral and accepting of pretty much everyone, welcomed Nadir’s family, and they settled in Geneva.
      When I asked Nadir about the origin of the term Pied-Noir, he said he thought it related back to sailors—mostly Algerians—who worked barefoot in the coal rooms of steamships, their feet dirtied by soot and dust. I prefer the theory that “black feet” refers to French Algerians whose feet were stained with purple as they trampled grapes to make wine.
  Nadir was a young boy when his family left Algeria. He thinks of Switzerland as his home, but his father goes back to Algiers see relatives. For Christmas Nadir and Monet are heading to Geneva. I can only imagine the stories that will circulate around the banquet table, not to mention the Algerian delicacies like mahjouba (flaky crêpes stuffed with tomato jam), chicken tagine, slk fel kousha (baked cheese and spinach), and of course, couscous.
   I admit I’m a little jealous. My own family history is bland by comparison. Neither am I named for a famous painter. What I love about hosting guests in the treehouse is that when they’re willing to share, I get a glimpse of the world through their experiences. But it’s more than that. We foster friendships, no matter how different we are from each other. For one weekend, at least, we have nature and a little treehouse in common, and that’s enough.

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