Christmas in Algeria, 1932

Dearest Mother,
I have read your letter and I want you to know that Miss has given us that warning already. We never go out alone. Earl Leslie and the other boys keep a close eye on us. There, that should relieve your concern.
North Africa is very strange, but I like it here. Una bought a guidebook and we have, as a group, toured Tunis and Algiers on foot. The buildings are a mix of the past here. The book calls the style “Ottoman-French. I guess that means both Middle Eastern and European.
Every morning we wake up to a public call to prayer. The people are mostly Muslim and the calls are part of their customs. I think it sounds soothing—usually the sound of the caller lulls me back to sleep. Curious, isn’t it?
The heat here is dry, and the sun blinding white. We stroll through the narrow streets (in groups) where the sun can’t reach us, making for darker, cooler shade. Nameless women veiled from head to toe pull their children along dressed all in white. It’s such an exotic world.
Silly as this sounds, I tried to buy you Christmas gifts in the market, but found nothing. You’ll have to settle for a telegram, because this is a Muslim country and they don’t celebrate Christmas. And, Mother, please have a happy Christmas.
We girls have all decided to do our own gift exchange and sing Christmas carols. We’ve hung paper chains on a palm tree in the lobby of the Algiers Hotel! The hotel managers gave us permission.
Merry Christmas Mother. I love you and Eileen very much. The young man I mentioned is not serious. His name is Elie, (Jewish, I know) and he has kindly showed us all around tourist sites.
Helen

River of January, page 165-166.

Indie writer, Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Available at www.river-of-january.com and on Amazon.com.

Sharing Our Truth

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I retired from teaching last May after more years in the classroom than I care to admit.  No longer constrained by rules, rules, and more rules, I began friend-ing my former students on Facebook.  What once was ethically frowned upon, is now my link to my past career.  That being established, I have enjoyed viewing the posts the kids have put up since graduating high school.  In something akin to an educational diaspora, these 18 year- old’s are encountering their first experiences away from home.  Of course that includes washing one’s own laundry, filling up on starchy food, and getting out of bed for class without mom.

The pictures are charming.  Girls, arm in arm, who only a month ago were strangers, now glow, linked together in this new adventure as best friends.  The boys seem less inclined to pose.  Instead they splay across the floor of a dorm room, stuffing pizza and chips into their smiling mouths.

Still the experiences behind those photos may be the most profound in life.  Whether the setting is a dorm, or an apartment, or a cave, the ritual remains the same.

I remember best, parked on the bathroom floor in my dorm room, talking earnestly and laughing many late nights.  In my new family of girls, we revealed our essence to one another, creating a link that I cannot replicate today with new acquaintances.  Established when I was naively open, without those worldly defenses I have perfected over time, those friendships have endured.  Fertilized only with an occasional Christmas card, or a stray email–when we get together, we pick right up where we left off.

Helen, with no opportunity for college, shared a similar bonding experience with her “new” friends touring Europe.  As discussed in my book, River of January, she danced in a ballet company called, “The American Beauties,” who together performed first in Paris, and traveled as far as Algiers from 1932 to 1933.  In fact, the girl and her fellow dancers patched together their own version of a Christmas celebration at a hotel in Islamic North Africa.  She too, relished the late night yakking sessions, the joy of carrying out pranks, such as the night a group of them short-sheeted the bed of two other, unsuspecting dancers.  The picture above is a charming example of Helen purely celebrating life.

Later, these women remained some of the best friends Helen ever had.  Traveling to her home in Miami from Los Angeles or New York, the old girls sat around Helen’s little kitchen table, enjoying drinks, reminiscing and laughing.  For a short moment, seated at that tiny white table, they again were the same young dancers who had reveled in an extraordinary and memorable learning experience of their own.