Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Memoirs of Little Aicha: Summer Camp in France

After experiencing the camp life in Algeria, the free-spirited little moi decided to cruise the Mediterranean, and witness at first-hand how the poor French kids spent their summers.

One happy summer day, quite some time agoooo, I was informed that I would have the fortune to be amongst some kids selected by the state to go and spend a few weeks at a summer camp in France. It is not exactly how they put it. We were just informed that we would be going to France on holiday, and who says France says shopping. The first picture that came to my little mind was the Eiffel tower, and then the Eiffel tower, and then lots and lots of shops.

My preparation for this trip was quite different from my Algerian summer camp days. I was going to France yew! I had to have nice clothes because no one would steal them, and then I had to give a good image of my country (beh mayadahkouch 3lia les Français). So, my three sisters who were at Uni then, chipped in using their summer grant money (bourse) to buy me clothes. We decided to go to Algiers. Shops in my hometown did not cater for young teenage girls who failed to grow up fast; you had to be either a child or a woman, you had to choose. If you went to a shop and tried something on and asked for a smaller size, the answer would always be a big NO!!!!! It was my fault after all, I was thin and should have defied my genes and grew fatter quicker. My mum always used to remind me: “I told you, you should have stayed in that volleyball team, you would have put on some muscle and grown taller!”. She was right of course, most of my friends who stayed in the team, undeterred by the psychopath coach that we had, were a few inches taller, and bigger than me.

My sister knew la Rue Disley very well and that’s where we headed for the shopping. My previous shopping trip that year was to Bab Ezzouar in Ramdhan to buy clothes for Eid. There was a big market there where they sold clothes that fit young teenage girls. It was my first time in that Rue Disley, and it was a real step up from souk Bab Ezzouar. After paying an arm and a leg for the clothes, I felt sad that I had used up my sisters’ grants for the clothes; and I promised myself that I would return the favour one day.

Departure day was in August, it was hot in Algiers. The port was full of  immigrés coming or going back, and over a hundred kids queuing up, all excited to be on this adventure of a life time! The ship was grand; it made me think of Titanic. It was the first time I had seen anything like it: a floating palace!
A day at sea, and lots and lots of laughs and happy moments later, the ship finally arrived in Marseilles.  After the formalities, the counting, lunching and a bit of sightseeing, we were divided into groups of 8, and each group was sent somewhere. That somewhere remained a mystery up until we reached the train station. We were overwhelmed by how different everything seemed, some of us had never been on a train before, so there was some excitement there. A train, then a bus journey later, we arrived at our destination, which was in the middle of nowhere...There was no Eiffel tower to be seen, no shops, and hardly any people walking around. It was raining and dark, and I could feel each one of us dreading what was to come.

Sleep came hard to me that night. I wanted to cry, but realized that it was silly of me to do that. I was in France, the land from where all that publicité de chocolat, de Chambourcy came from. It could not be that bad…

Things got better. After a few days, we realized that there were not many rules, no lines to walk in, no anthem to sing, no 3-4hr siesta. Well, there was a routine but we did not have to follow it religiously! The continuous sunshine of August, and the beautiful surrounding landscape made it easier for us to adapt. There were about 40 kids in the camp, 8 Algerians (4 boys and 4 girls), and a dozen adults (20 somethings) looking after them; One director, an avid photographer, who did not bring his family. I don’t think he had one; he had a red sports car!

The Camp had three buildings which looked like old chateaux, but were well-renovated inside, there were 4 of us in each room. The rooms were painted in a happy colour, I think it was pink for us girls. There was a nurse but no doctor. The gardens, full of fruit trees, were so big and as there was no fence, we could not tell where they ended. We also had huge sequoias, which were towering over us. Activities ranged from swimming and horse-riding, hiking and mountain biking to caving and kayaking. The siesta was less than an hour and it could be taken either indoors or outdoors. When it rained, there was a game room facility to use with table tennis and table football. Some afternoons were spent drawing wall frescoes. In the evenings, we had murder mystery games, board games, Pictionary, story nights, or quiz nights; there were two parties one to say hello and the other one to say goodbye.

Our sheets and clothes were washed regularly, and I was very surprised to find my clothes washed, ironed, and left on my bed, come sunshine or rain. I had to ask how they could do it when it rained. And it was then that I discovered the amazing mysterious sèche-linge.

During my time in the camp, I forgot about the Eiffel tower about the shops, and about the cities that I was expecting to visit. A couple of days before our departure, we were taken to the nearest city, ate McDonald, and did a bit of shopping. Time not permitting, I could hardly buy anything, and thought of all those requests I got before my departure and that handsome sum of Francs that was to be returned almost untouched.

When the three weeks came to an end, we had to say our goodbyes. We were told that we Algerians had made life a lot more enjoyable for the kids. I enjoyed my time in the camp mostly because there were people from my country to make it fun, to make jokes about everything, and to make life a bit less serious in the Camp. It was great to be there but I don’t think I would have been happy without them.

Judging by the red eyes of some of the kids who stayed up until midnight to say goodbye, the red eyes of some of the people who were looking after us, I understood that friendships could be knit between different people of different cultures and languages, within a short time. 

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