“You’ll get to see Condom”. She uttered that sentence in a friendly manner that made her completely oblivious to the outlines of shock that were changing the contours of my face as she spoke. I used to live in Europe – France – before I moved to North America. Having lived continuously in Canada and the United States now since 1998, I always receive a fair dosage of culture shock every time I return to Paris – my second home away from Nigeria.
If there is one thing Europeans and Nigerians have in common, especially the French, it is liberty of expression devoid of the irritating encumbrance that is political correctness. In Europe and Nigeria, you can still call a prisoner prisoner without wahala. In Canada and the US, he is an inmate and may sue you if you call him a prisoner; if your neighbor can’t see, he or she is not blind but visually challenged. Anybody you would call disabled in Nigeria is physically challenged here in North America. You may not use generic ‘man’ the way they use it in Europe and Naija English, you’d better say ‘person’ here in North America. Every language situation here is a mine field of political correctness that restricts and stands in the way of natural, spontaneous, free-flowing communication. North American communication is stale.
My graduate students and I once left a graduate seminar room untidy after our three-hour class at Penn State University. It was an evening seminar and we normally brought snacks to class. That evening, we got carried away debating Frantz Fanon and Walter Rodney and forgot to clean up the room. Next day, a terse email from the Departmental Secretary was in my inbox: “Hi Pius, it would appear that you and your students left the seminar room in a less than complimentary situation yesterday…” At this point, I stopped reading and went to her office and told her: “you know, it’s ok to say hey Pius, you guys made a heck of a mess in the seminar room! I won’t sue for pain and suffering if you put it plain old English. Less than complimentary situation? That’s political correctness gone too far”. I have very little patience with American political correctness. My work depends on the flow and effervescence of language, political correctness stands in the way of language.
But don’t blame the poor secretary. In America, I could very much have claimed that she used “made a mess” for me just because I’m black. Were I white, she would have used the politically correct and respectful “less than complimentary situation”. If I put up a good show, weeping profusely on national TV with a furious Reverend Al Sharpton trying to console me at a press conference, I may even get a moronic jury to award me ten million dollars for pain and suffering! By the time I’m done with lawyers’ fees and taxes, I could still pack my load and return to Nigeria with about 1.5 million dollars. That’s America!
That’s why that society has come up with an overdose of political correctness in daily communication. That’s why the naturalness of communication and the unguardedness of diction and expression always shock me whenever I return to Paris. But not even my knowledge of the absence of North American political correctness and other conversational hindrances in French and France prepared me for what the lady had just thrown at me with a very friendly smile: “You’ll get to see Condom”! “Condom ke?”, I thought. Then I looked at her properly for the first time: thirty-ish and very beautiful. There she stood, blessed with the sort of fullness and roundedness in certain geographies of the female anatomy that make Nigerian men in Europe and America secretly describe her type as a black woman’s behind trapped in a white woman’s body, away from the unwary ears of the Nigerian women in their lives. And she had thrown Condom into the conversation out of the blue!
She must have sensed that my mind was getting dirtier by the second, she must have noticed the flicker of hope that evicted the initial shock from my face, and she must have noticed that I was beginning to get ideas, for she said: “you don’t know Condom? Beautiful little town! Lots of historic sights to see! My home town is not far from Condom.” I smiled and thanked her, hoping and praying that she did not notice the disappointment that my sinking heart had inscribed on my face by then. Just when the Naija man in me was saying: “hope rising”! I left the place feeling depressed like a book reviewed by Ikhide Ikheloa.
She was an employee of the SNCF – the national transportation company in France – and had just sold me a train ticket that would take me to the Gers region in the south of France. I am a connoisseur of French wine and cheese and I like to spend time visiting the vines in the south of the country. I was going to join up with friends in the town of Mont de Marsan – not far from Bordeaux – and we had drawn up an extensive programme to visit wineries in the Gers region. It was from this little chit-chat about my travel plans as she prepared my ticket that she noticed that I hadn’t mentioned Condom. It didn’t make sense to her that anyone would drive around in Gers country without visiting Condom.
How was she to know that in all my years of exposure to French culture, language, and civilization, I had never heard of a town in France so mischievously named? And the yeye girl had raised my hope for nothing! It is perhaps not true to say that Condom was mischievously named. After all, the town’s history goes several centuries back, a melting port of Abbeys and convents long before modernity and the desires of men and women invented the rubber that is now threatening to ruin the town’s good name. As we toured Condom in the summer of 2009, my French friends had a good laugh when they heard the story of how the name of that town had raised my hopes at an SNCF ticket sales centre in Paris.
And that’s when I remembered that another mischievously named town in Pennsylvania had almost gotten me into trouble in 2003! I spent my first two years in Pennsylvania doing road trips with Nigerian writers in the east coast, especially Ogaga Ifowodo and Akin Adesokan. As most of those yeye writers could not drive in America at the time, I always got to do hours of inter-state driving. We would just hit the road, discovering places and names of American towns.
Once in the summer of 2003, Ogaga and I were on a road trip from Pennsylvania to Virginia to spend the weekend with the painter Victor Ekpuk. We got lost in a town called Indian Heads in Maryland! Indian Heads? That name fascinated us. We surmised that knowing the brutality of the European conquerors of the Americas, one couldn’t put it beyond those European Christians to have chopped off a few Indian heads in that town and proceeded to name the town in commemoration of their crime. I have never bothered to check the website of the town of Indian Heads because I would hate to discover that this imagined account of the town’s history isn’t true!
America wasn’t done throwing towns with strange names in my path. Shortly after Indian Heads, I decided to explore rural Pennsylvania. As is always the case during every road trip I’ve done in the US and Canada, I missed an exit and got lost. The next thing I know, I found myself in a town in Pennsylvania called Intercourse!! Esu was at work for no sooner had I pulled up at a gas station in Intercourse than my cell phone rang. It was my girlfriend calling from Nigeria. I told her that I would call her back as I was lost in Intercourse during a road trip. The rest of the story is better left to your imagination.
Now, writing about these experiences in my living room here in Canada, I can’t help wondering what would happen if you called your travel agent to book a flight from Condom to Intercourse. If your travel agent is female and American, you wouldn’t be making that trip from Condom, France to Intercourse, Pennsylvania. She’d turn red, make a phone call to the authorities, and you’d be going to jail!