On Saturday evening, we attended a friend’s birthday party at a small local restaurant. The Kafana Katun has a distinct Serbian flavor : wooden rustic furniture, red and white checkered tablecloths and curtains, an old wood burning stove, large carriage wheels, and an odd assortment of items scattered here and there : blueberry combs, guitars, and the type of coal irons still very much in use in India, but here, displayed for decoration. The music was local, and so were the food and the drinks. And then, there was this funny piece of humor art. For those who like their I’s dotted, and their T’s properly crossed, “Ulje na platnu” means oil on canvas, in Serbian.
As a young journalist, in France, I worked in the newspaper which first introduced computers in its editorial office and trained writers to use them. That was in the early eighties, and the computers were ugly, bulky machines with black screens and green letters. Later, when I became a translator, I also worked for the first publishing house to use computers in France. Instead of printing out two copies of my manuscript, the way my other publishers requested me to do it, I would simply bring the large, black square floppy disk containing my finished assignment to the editor. The computers were still enormous, the screen was still black, and the letters bright orange. And in the late nineties, when I lived in New York City, that same publisher was among the first to allow translators to email the completed manuscript as an attachment instead of mailing hard disks which were by then much smaller. The Internet also allowed me to forget about carting my hefty bilingual dictionary around. Research became so much easier. And then, in Nigeria, I discovered online writing communities; In India, online writing courses and blogging, and Facebook. It is hard to imagine life without all these medias, today.
Facebook allows me to keep in contact with people who live hundreds and thousands of miles away. It also keeps me informed. This is how I read most of my news. And even as I recognize the increasing Orwellian quality of our world , I can’t, nor do I wish to renounce the many advantages of being connected. But I’m an adult. A flawed adult, but an adult nevertheless. I have had time to develop a reasonably discerning, critical mind which allows me to recognize the dangers of technology. Also, as a dinosaur born half a century ago, my mind was shaped at a time when we actually read books from beginning till end, when we still knew how to sit and listen to entire pieces of music, to watch entire movies or TV shows. The world was not fragmented in bite size, pre-digested segments, movies could be slow, even contemplative. We could sit in a car, watch the world go by, and not whine about being bored only a few minutes into a journey. And if we did, no one gave us a DVD player, or a DS, or an i-Pad to keep us occupied. I remember trips from Paris to Malaga, in the south of Spain: 1800 Kms in a car, with usually one overnight stop in the middle, and what did we do? We sang songs in canon, told jokes, argued, or slept.
What about our young people today? Teenagers, and even pre-teens? What about these kids who seem to have mobile phones surgically attached to their hands, some of them not even 10 years old ? These kids who are requested to use computers for Homework, and work on their Maths, Sciences or English projects, (or should I say try to) even as they have half a dozen or more applications running: Google chat, Skype, emails, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and all the other social networks, new ones, older ones that I discover every day (the last one, Ask.fm, allows you to ask other users questions, with the option of remaining anonymous, and it has been linked with cyber bullying and several teenagers suicides in recent past.)
As a teen, when I was not in class, or doing homework, I could usually be found reading, playing my piano, day-dreaming or singing in my room. My family wasn’t into sports, which is not necessarily a good thing, but other kids my age might have been practicing a sport, or another instrument. When I was bored with Homework, I’d open the drawer under my desk, lay a novel there and read, quickly pushing the drawer close when I heard my parents coming down the corridor. After I turned 16, I was allowed to go to the movies with my friends. I still remember how Saturday Night Fever and Grease shook my world. I got the Grease record for my birthday, and listened to it over, and over, and over again. Oh, and we had one telephone with a rotary dial (a what?) and the curly cord plugged into a wall socket. All my parents had to worry about was my running huge phone bills when my best friend moved from Paris to a city north of the capital, and it only happened once. Mostly, we wrote each other 18-page letters. By hand. Of course, while working on this lengthy correspondence, I was not solving Maths problems, translating Latin texts, or memorizing German vocabulary lists. But at least, I was practicing a skill. What skill do kids practice, nowadays, when they exchange messages with truncated, acronymed groups of words? Certainly not spelling or syntax. Of course, I often use these abbreviated forms myself, nowadays, when texting. But I learned to spell words properly, first. Of course, with spell checkers, who needs to know how to spell, nowadays? And that makes me so sad.
How can parents possibly keep up with all the gadgets and Cyber distractions available? I almost feel as if I must do the rounds, each evening, to make sure that my teenager doesn’t stay on a smart phone, or an i-Pod, or an i-Pad, or her computer until 2 in the morning, texting with her friends or watching You Tube videos under the covers of her bed.
And let’s talk about You Tube. I love it. You Tube is fun. It’s great. It serves me the whole world onto a rectangular screen, from recipes, to dance steps, to TED talks, to TV shows I cannot watch where I live (Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, Bill Maher, yes, I love knowing I can find them any time I need a recreation). But our children, what does it give them? Most importantly, what does it do their brains, to constantly watch this barrage of over sexed music videos showing women in various states of undress contorting themselves on sandy beaches, the back seats of stretch Limos, or hanging from lianas in the jungles? And what about shows like the X Factor, that seem to promise the world to everyone, and make it look as if it’s easy, as if all you have to do is show up and sing and everyone goes berserk and claps and cries and screams adoringly! Or the way some singers are hailed as great singers, when in my opinion all they do is shout (anyone else out there wonders what the big deal is about Adèle?) Last year, our teen said she wanted to play the guitar. We bought her a guitar, we paid for guitar lessons (on top of the piano lessons, that was the condition), and after six months, she decided she no longer needed lessons, and would continue on her own. Of course, the guitar now sits on its stand, gathering dust. If you ask my daughter about the piano, which she also gave up a few months ago (we were in the middle of a move, and I didn’t have the energy to continue fighting that battle), she’ll tell you that she knows how to play and doesn’t need to take any more lessons. What can I do, when I hear that, but roll my eyes, bite my tongue, and chant internal mantras about adolescence being a normal, necessary phase in life, knowing I’m only good at the first one, and terrible at the other twos?
But I digress. Or do I?
One of my friends likes to claim that her children (slightly younger than mine, I’m waiting to see if she can keep it up) are not allowed any computer time, or barely. I respect that, and yet, find it an impractical solution. I don’t even think I could implement it in our house. Not with an IB school system that relies so heavily on technology, using the irrefutable argument that our children need to be able to function in tomorrow’s world – a world that no longer uses rotary-dial telephones or typewriters. Clearly, the way we educate our children today is, for the most part, on the verge of total obsolescence. I recognize that. I understand the value of introducing them to new languages like Internet coding. But how do we avoid the pitfalls as we negotiate the transition into this new era?
The school does try to educate them: they have talks and assemblies on Digital Citizenship. Facebook, and now Ask.fm, are banned from the school computers, on campus – but of course, most kids have their smart phones or tablets and access these networks via Wifi. And what about the time they don’t spend on campus?
At my request, my daughter now leaves the school laptop at school before she comes home at the end of the day. If she or her sister need the computer to work on a school project, they save it to Drive, and use one of our home computers. I purchased two applications to help me control the time spent on the computer. If they need to do research, I run the Anti-Social application that automatically blocks Facebook, Twitter, and any other social network of my choice, for the amount of time that I choose. If there is no research involved, I run Freedom, which blocks access to the Internet, again for a time chosen by the user. It helps. A little. So long as I’m there to launch the application. And too bad if it makes me feel like a police constable.
Have I turned into one of these conservative grumpy old farts who cannot tolerate the way the world changes before their eyes? Do I need to relax and trust that all will be well in the end? A friend of mine, who refuses to use Facebook, also says that she doesn’t want to know what her son (a few years older than my daughters) is up to, and if she used it, would not even consider being his friend on Facebook. What you don’t know cannot hurt you. Is this the way to go about it? Look the other way?
It’s like a massive tide, over powering, unavoidable. We can try our best to keep our children occupied in as sane a manner as possible (sports, music, travels), and continue to be self-appointed home police constables. Mostly, we can take a deep breath, ride that wave, and hope that our children will make it to the other side, safe and sound. With the understanding that while they ride that technological tsunami, they must also learn the skills to strive, and possibly succeed in this ever-more competitive world.
The reaction of many of our friends and relatives, usually those who have never lived outside their home country (and this is in no way meant as a negative judgment, simply an observation) when we told them that we were moving to Belgrade, was: “Oh, wonderful, Belgrade is Europe. This is going to change your life.”
It certainly has, in more ways than one. And as I’m still in the first transitional year, I have decided to refrain from trying to decide whether this is indeed a wonderful thing. But something happened, a couple of days ago, that had me reflect and come to this conclusion: if I must choose between one disorganized way or another, I’d rather go with the kind found in places like India or Bangladesh.
Of course, the following rant is colored by my current mood, a sort of confused and forgetful nostalgia where the many difficult moments spent in my last host country tend to blur and smudge even as the good times come into bright focus, effectively distorting my memory. No matter, a little rant from time to time keeps this brain’s cells working. So, here comes:
Before I even landed in Beograd, I somehow heard about the Serbian way of driving : fast, reckless, macho (although I’d like to add a twist to that one, because I have found women behind the wheel to often be as aggressive as men, here). I just laughed, responding that after driving in India 4 and half years, not much could phase me. I was also told that even though Serbia is requesting entry into the European Union, it retains enough quirks and idiosyncrasies to keep things interesting – a comment I found enormously reassuring.
So, I was quite surprised when I found out about the parking system in place. Cities are divided into zones, according to the number of hours we’re allowed to leave our car in the same area (one, two, or three hours). The parking spots have their colored markings, and signs planted at street corners indicate the zone and give a phone number. You SMS your plate number, and that’s it. Of course, I had not been told that you need to send an SMS for each hour that you’re allowed to park in a 2 or 3 hours zone, and I collected a ticket on my very first day. Neither had I been told that when you’ve collected a ticket, you are entitled to remain in that parking zone for 24 hours, and if you are to return to the same area before the 24 hours have expired, well, you may send as many SMSs as you want, they will not be validated. BUT, the second the 24 hours deadline expires, here you have an agent leaving a nice blue rectangular ticket on your windshield. You do receive an SMS warning you that your time is up, but as it is in Serbian, well, I couldn’t figure out what they were saying. So again, I learned the hard way. Five months later, and apart from one time when I totally forgot to send the SMS (I was late for a Flamenco class), and received another ticket (these parking attendants walk their assigned area with utmost zeal, I can vouch for that), I’d say I have pretty much mastered the parking system in Belgrade.
Then, the other evening, I was driving along the street, trying to park. Two empty cars sat on the side of the roadway, each in front of an empty parking spot, effectively blocking it and disturbing the traffic along that 3-lane avenue. I slowed down, and pressed the horn, thinking they might come out of a shop, but nope, no such luck. I grumbled, drove around the block, twice, and eventually found a spot in a nearby street. I was still grumbling as I took pictures of both cars, thinking: “honestly, who would do that? Block a parking spot, not even bothering to enter said spot, and leaving the car on the road instead.” Then, I noticed two parking attendants. “Ha! they’re gonna get it,” I thought gleefully. Yeah, I can be vindictive, that way. Imagine my astonishment when both parking attendants walked past the cars, not even looking at them. If my Serbian were better, I might have run to them and started gesticulating, asking them why I get a parking ticket if I’m two minutes late sending my SMS, but they don’t give a ticket to these two people, even though they are so blatantly breaking the mighty laws of rational parking? Maybe it’s a good thing I still don’t speak Serbian.
In India or in Bangladesh, there are basically no road rules. Or rather, the mightiest road rules of all is: the biggest car gets priority. As for parking, anything – and everything – goes. It is absolute chaos, everyone knows that, and I, for one, find some semblance of order in that notion. What I find hard to deal with are places where some things obey a number of rigidly enforced rules and regulations, except for the times when they don’t, but when does the exception apply, well, that’s anybody’s guess.
Almost Home, The Asian Search of a Geographic Trollop, is Janet Brown’s second travelogue. In Tone Deaf in Bangkok, which I reviewed in my previous blog, here, Janet took us on a journey through the back alleys of the Thai capital, offering us glimpses of the city that very few tourists care to see. More importantly, she took us on her own private journey, as she explored facets of her identity. In her own words, Tone Deaf in Bangkok was a “thank-you note to Bangkok which became a book, a long series of stories about my years there.”
In Almost Home, Janet pushes her exploration further. After seven years in the US, feeling like an exile, she has decided to move permanently to Bangkok. But the political situation has become deeply troubled, and she no longer feels at home in the city she loves so much. As she travels to Hong Kong, Beijing and Penang, spending weeks and months at a time in each place, she wonders : “Could I live here?” Almost Home is a quest for a place to call Home, that most elusive of notions.
As the author mentions, wisely, at the end of her fascinating journey : ” I’ve found out that exploring can range wide on familiar ground or can be quite narrow in exotic territory. “I have traveled a great deal in Concord,” Thoreau said, while centuries later, backpackers often spend their time in Bangkok in front of a computer screen or a TV blasting Western movies.”
Janet’s way of traveling is conscious, and meticulously deliberate. She is not interested in sights (as someone who feels the need to see those sights with my own eyes, in a way that sometimes borders on mania, it is something I find equally puzzling and enviable) as much as she’s interested in people. Every walk she takes (and does she walk!) is an adventure to be savored, the way she savors food: slowly, in exquisite, meaningful detail. She has the true gift of observation, turning the most mundane scene into beauty, as that morning when she’s standing at the window of her room, in Chungking Mansion, Hong Kong, and sees “objects drifting past like snowflakes, but very large snowflakes. Plastic bags, wads of paper, bits of Styrofoam floated down from an upper floor, surreal, silent, and somehow lovely as they fell. I thought of living here, where garbage became performance art…”
Janet Brown not only exhibits a wanderlust she traces back to her childhood, when her “mother told some neighborhood children that [she] could not go with them because [she] was “too little to go exploring,”” she also exudes passion, and a daredevil lust for life I find totally irresistible: “The whisper of waves had been replaced by a soft rush of wind moving the surrounding trees and for a minute I greedily longed to stand in this place during a storm.”
Her writing style is precise, elegant, often lyrical, and surpassed only by an immense generosity. Even as she grants her readers the privilege of discovering fascinating places through the magnifying lens of eyes that see well beyond the obvious, she also gives us the opportunity to get a feel for the real people who inhabit them as they go about their daily lives, all the while inviting us to follow her own intimate reflexions.
“Could I live here?” Could I call this place Home? Where is Home, when you can choose the whole world? Where is Home, when you were born with a wandering soul and insatiable curiosity? Where? That question resonates within the hearts of most, if not all expatriates or exiles. I know it looms large over us. Where do we want to live, later, once we no longer have a job or an organization making that decision up for us?
If I still lived in Dhaka, I would definitely suggest this as one of our book club reads. Most of us are now scattered all over the world, some having returned to their passport country, but I know we would all spend a great evening trying to find an answer to this question.
Janet Brown has found it, in a way that gives her quest meaningful and satisfying closure. Luckily for us, her readers, it does not mean the end of her wanderlust. She’s currently back in Bangkok, and you can follow her at her blog, Tone Deaf in Thailand.
So our family is bilingual. Father and mother are both Francophone, with a father who grew up speaking both French and Creole, and a mother who grew up speaking both French and Spanish. My husband and I speak French together, and it was always clear to us that French would be the language spoken at home. Sounds easy enough. Except when you start realizing that speaking French to your children is not the same thing as speaking French with your children.
Our first daughter spoke French with us exclusively until the age of 6 or 7, when school (always English medium ones, at first because we didn’t have a choice, and later for a number of reasons to complex to go into, here) started occupying an ever-expanding place in her life. Also, by that time, her little sister had joined the same English-medium school and was becoming quite talkative.
For years, I fought an ongoing battle with my older and very strong-willed first child, tutoring her as she took a long-distance course that follows closely the language and literature curriculum taught in French schools. I just had to mention the acronym CNED, and a rebellious look would spread across her face. Some days, a little cajoling was enough. Other times, the conflict escalated into a power struggle, a war of wills between two equally stubborn people, the young one clamoring that it was profoundly unfair that she had to do boring grammar exercises and writing assignments when she could be playing, the older one responding that it was of paramount importance that she should be able to not only express herself in her maternal language, but to write it well as well, something she would understand later. Nowadays, the child has turned into a teenager, and she still follows the CNED at her 8th grade level. In other words, were we to move to France, or was she to end up studying in France, she would be perfectly able to. She still grumbles from time to time, but as the course has now been taken over by the school, she also understands the futility of arguing about it.
I’m now fighting with her younger sister, who has a very different way to express her defiance and dislikes, but I’m now a seasoned warrior. Most importantly, because our second daughter lived her first few years in a family environment that was no longer entirely francophone (from the moment both girls attended school, English became the language they spoke together), I feel the pressure to impose this curriculum even more than I did with her older sister.
But now, I face another dilemma. Neither of my daughters wants to speak French with me. “Parle français” is something I hear myself repeat practically every other minute from the moment they walk through the front door at the end of the school day. The little one manages to slip back to French, but the Teen, who has not lost her spunky spirit, well, she just won’t.
Should I give up? After all, she IS bilingual by now. She WILL continue with her French until she graduates from High School.
But it’s no longer about that only. And here comes one of the many threads of contradictions that run through the tapestry of my multicultural life. I love the English language. So much of what I’ve done in my life, so many of the roads I’ve traveled are a direct consequence of my falling in love with the English language. Am I not writing these words in English?
But I also love the French language. I’m still French. Besides, as I once told an English lady who’d asked me who edited my English before I published anything, seemingly implying that it couldn’t possibly be good enough without someone bringing out their red pen: “No one. Maybe I write English better than I speak it.”
And Spanish. I already gave up part of my heritage when I chose French over Spanish as the language I would use with our children. It was an obvious choice, and yet, it does pain me that when we go to Spain, they can’t understand a word, nor can they communicate with their aunts and cousins there (although our little one started learning Spanish this year – she had a choice between Serbian and Spanish, and it was a difficult one, and I was even pushing for her to learn Serbian, thinking it might give her a better advantage, on top of helping her to fit in better in her host country, but her mind was made up and I didn’t insist). And I’d bet it somewhat pains their father that they cannot speak or understand Creole when we go to Haiti, even though communication is not an issue, there, as everyone in the family speaks French and/or English.
I don’t want to speak English with my children. Of course, words, expressions or idioms will slip in from time to time, as the conversation flows. But I don’t like these disconnected conversations we have, nowadays, where I speak French, the Teen speaks English, and the little one alternates between English and French, depending on how much energy I have (because it takes a lot of energy to interrupt them constantly with a reminder to speak French to me.) I worry about what this will do to our relationship.
And yet, how do I justify the importance I’m attaching to the issue? Shouldn’t I let go of that, too, and accept it as a direct consequence of the displaced life I have happily chosen. I wanted it to be a beautiful, multi-colored patchwork, didn’t I? So what if the patchwork now has to accommodate multiple languages, including at the dining table?
Last night, the teen came back from her ballet class and wanted to tell me something. Parle français, I interrupted, on auto-pilot. She got angry and went to that place where she retreats whenever she’s asked to do something she doesn’t want to do (and also when she’s asked to do something she might have happily considered, but since someone else asked her to do it, well, she’s no longer interested.) And she went to bed without sharing what she had in mind.
This is where I need to draw the line. I know – it’s about time. I’m slow, what can I say? What matters, right now, is to work at keeping the channels of communication wide open. Life, and the normal course of things will create enough interference without my adding to it. Forget about the language. Put it in your pocket with your handkerchief on top, as we say in colloquial French. Maybe it will come back. The important thing, here, is that she communicates, in whichever language she chooses – which doesn’t prevent me from continuing to speak the language that feels right to me.
I know this is the right decision. I just would never have thought it would be so hard.
Today, I finally updated my positively ancient version of Scrivener and worked on an old manuscript. First time in almost two years. And I feel better than I have felt in months. At least since winter descended upon me and wrapped my world in a shroud of grey misery.
I think I can safely admit that I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. I started suspecting this when I first moved to New York City. It was the winter of 1994, one of the most brutal the city has known, with some 17 snowstorms, and temperatures dropping down to minus 20 degrees C. Cars in the streets were buried in snow for weeks on end. It was awful. And even though I’d wanted to live in New York City so much, I was miserable beyond miserable. I spent my days in the apartment I was subletting, trying to work on translations, and watching hours of reality shows, which made it even worse because I couldn’t believe the depressing rubbish that was aired on a daily basis. I had never liked TV, and to this day, I’m happy to say that I have never bought a TV in my life, but the sublet came with it, and at first, it was rather fascinating to watch. Culture shock and all that. But I digress. It was a sad, sad winter, until spring suddenly burst all over the city, and just like that, from one second to the other, I was happy again.
In the 13 years that I have lived in Africa and Asia, I never suffered from any type of depression. I was not always happy – who is? Some days were harder than others, especially in Nigeria, and then in Bangladesh, but I never felt the kind of hopelessness, and despair that I have been feeling lately. I never woke up in the morning, longing for night to fall again so I can go back to sleep. The only things that have kept me going, lately, are Zumba and Flamenco. And my piano, until I started feeling pains in my left hand again. I keep working on this bitch of a Debussy piece (Dr Gradus Ad Parnassum, for anyone interested), even though I already hurt my wrist that way last year and couldn’t play for a month and a half, and now, I’ve done it again.
Anyway, this morning, after I came back from Zumba, I showered, sat at the computer, and decided to use the new application I bought to help my daughters focus on their Homework (as opposed to doing their HW while chatting on email, sending and receiving emails, Facebooking and Skyping all at the same time). And so, instead of spending hours zapping from my email to Facebook to endless games of Word Bubbles Rising on Lumosity, I set the Anti-Social app so I could not access any social media for one hour, and I set to work.
And it worked.
And it feels good.
Actually, I’m not sure how I could stay away from my characters for so long. I mean, I love those characters. They feel very much alive to me. So what, if they are not quite finished, or polished. They will drive me nuts, most likely, as I try to go deeper into their motivations. My climax still has a big hole in its middle. I have threads going right and left that need to be woven into the story. I have an awful lot to do. But I need to do this. Because if I don’t, well, I die a little bit inside, day after day after day. And it’s not pretty.
So, wish me luck.
This pretty door opens into a café in Niš, a city south of Belgrade, and birth cradle of the emperor Constantin The Great. We stopped there for lunch and a bit of sightseeing as we made our way back from Bulgaria, where we’d spent a few days after Christmas. It serves great deserts, hot chocolates ,and ranks high on Trip Advisor.
Now, if you zoom in, do you see the square blue sign?
Non-smokers, people who do not wish to eat and drink in an atmosphere so polluted by cigarettes you can hardly see the person seating in front of you, forget about breathing, pass your way and find another place. We are smokers, and we are proud of it.
And here is the other kind, the non-smoking sign that I’m used to, on shops’ doors, this time. Maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe shops used to be filled with smoke, like restaurants.
This is a scourge, in Serbia. People smoke everywhere, all the time. Non-smoking sections in restaurants or cafés are almost impossible to find, and when they’re officially there, it’s usually a tiny corner right next to the rest of the restaurant. The only way to avoid this is to have lunch at 12, and dinner at 6 pm. Or stay home, which is what I’ve basically decided to do until summer, when it becomes possible to eat and drink outside again.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided, quite out of the blue, that our family needed a change of scenery. After all, we had landed in Belgrade on August 18. My husband traveled all over the place until the beginning of November, but the children and I stayed put. Also, the lack of Christmas atmosphere, in Belgrade, has been a bit of a disappointment. If we’re going to endure cold, grey days that end at 4 PM, I’d at least expect a bit of tinkle and holiday spirit to make up for it. Only, Serbia is an Orthodox country, and they celebrate Christmas on January 7. Even finding a real Christmas tree is difficult. So, I booked an apartment in the center of Budapest, looked up the itinerary on Google Map (and forgot it on my desk), and off we went the minute the girls were out of school on Friday.
Three and half hours later, we reached the outskirts of the Hungarian capital, and I heard one girl cry excitedly from the back of the car: “Decathlon! There’s a Decathlon!” Now, maybe only the French reading this will know what Decathlon is, but our girls know it very well because we spend an entire afternoon there, each and every summer. This is where I buy the sport shoes, swimming and horse riding gear, ballet slippers and tutus that will fill our suitcases and last us until the following summer. “And Ikea! Maman, they have Ikea!” cried the second one, who knows my weakness for the Ikea stores. And my husband to add: “They have an Auchan as well. We could try and find some salted butter on our way out.” And here, even though in my heart of heart I was lamenting the fact that we have so little time and I won’t be able to go to Decathlon, Ikea and Auchan, I declared, in my most authoritarian voice : “We’ve come to visit Budapest, not to shop.”
Yep, that was the plan. Only, I had not thought about one little detail. Sightseeing in winter in Europe is not the same as sightseeing in Asia pretty much any time of the year. I had checked the weather reports : no rain, no snow, ergo all would be fine. And the first evening did indeed go well. We checked in, went out to have dinner at a nice nearby restaurant where I was only too happy to order a Borscht, because when in Hungary, I eat Hungarian, and I was feeling alive, energized, and happier than I had in weeks.
The following morning, after a lovely breakfast in a café, we set off to visit St Stephen’s Basilica. It was a short walk from the apartment, but by the time we arrived, we were all frozen. Three of us had no gloves and no hats, and shoes that didn’t feel warm enough in spite of thick socks and all. Once inside the Basilica, and out of the wind’s way, we were able to recover a little, but we couldn’t possibly spend the entire day in the church.
Outside, there was a lovely Christmas market, and we soon noticed a stall selling hats, and gloves. So we bought some of that and at least, our hands and heads were a little warmer. But the feet were still cold, and getting even colder.
So, I looked for a place I had planned on visiting, as it is known for its chocolates, hot chocolate, and chocolate soup. Once there, the girls took their shoes off (I know) and we even laid their socks on the very warm bathroom radiator. I used the opportunity to reminisce about my first trip to Corsica with friends, when I was 19, and we camped on beaches at night, and washed in restaurants’ and cafe’s bathrooms, which seemed to delight my girls.
By then, a little trip to Decathlon was looking more and more attractive by the second. We did need warmer shoes, after all. And we also needed ski clothes for our upcoming ski vacation in Bulgaria. So, I relented, and we went back to get the car and drive to Decathlon. The plan was to be back by 5 pm, so we could check the Christmas Market and the Chain bridge, which I’d read is a landmark and gorgeous at night.
And so, we spent the following three hours trying on warm boots, thermal underwear, ski jackets and what not, before we went back to the center of town.
Budapest Christmas market is indeed lovely, and at last, I had my Christmas atmosphere. Lights, good mood, music, a giant Christmas tree, mulled wine, and crowds eating right there outside, never mind the cold. By then, we were all starving, so in true “when in Hungary, do as the Hungarians do” fashion, we decided to eat right there. The girls chose humongous Bradwurst sausages and I had a Sauerkraut stew in a big round bread. All very light (I should write a post about what living again in a cold country is doing to my waist line, by the way). Except that my husband is not the type to eat just anything because that’s what the locals eat. He is a little difficult that way. So, off we had to go again to try and find a place that sold pizza. Once we had all eaten, I steered my crowd in the direction of the Chain Bridge, because, well, because.
On the way, we bought hot chestnuts that reminded me of my childhood winters in Paris, and we also bought some sugary concoctions baked over a coal fire, and they were divine.
Finally, we reached the famous Chain Bridge. And indeed, it is very pretty at night, with the Buda castle towering over the Danube river, but by the water, the temperatures seemed to drop even more under the zero line. Everyone was complaining, and I had to come to terms with the fact that we were all tired, cranky, ill-equipped and quite simply not used to sightseeing in such weather. I gave up.
We went back to our apartment, and the following day, we had again a lovely breakfast, and I was the one to say: “Let’s go to Auchan and Ikea on the way back to Belgrade, see if we can find some salted butter, and buy some of their Swedish meatballs.” By 3 pm, when we finally got back into the car to drive back to Serbia, we could barely close the boot.
We’ll go back to Budapest, of course. In the spring. When the weather is a little more clement, the days a little longer, and walking outside is not sheer torture.
This is a blog I drafted a while back, after I read a post (Here) from another expatriate. It fits my current situation so well, I’m dusting it and throwing it out there.
With only a few words, the author gives us a glimpse into the emotions of a woman (expatriate mother newly landed somewhere) going through a painful time. It feels like fiction, which appeals to me as a reader, and a writer. In fiction, you can penetrate the soul of your characters and expose it for all to see. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? And yet, as soon as I finished reading the blog, I thought: ” it is very unlikely that this would happen in real life.”
There are more and more non-fiction books written about the expatriate experience (I was asked, a couple of years ago, to review just such a book, and I’m not proud to admit that I never delivered. More about why below.) They suggest solutions to a number of issues we’re most likely to encounter in any given expat situation, often using self-deprecating humor to get the message across. Robin Pascoe remains unrivaled, in my opinion. She offers empathy, demonstrates how most expat women go through a lot of the same experiences, and she does it in a way that never feels self-pitying. On the contrary, her no-nonsense approach and the way she laughs at her own experiences give her readers strength and hope that they, too, will cope… sooner or later. When I discovered her first book, I was having a truly miserable time in Nigeria, and reading her was like opening a door and finding a crowd of like-minded and understanding people after having wandered in a long, lonely tunnel forever. I was not alone. I was not crazy. It was all part of the expatriate experience. After that, I thought I could handle any move efficiently, and even more importantly, with a positive attitude. And I did just that when we moved to India, with a four-year-old and a six-weeks old baby. The transition wasn’t necessarily easy, but after Nigeria, I felt I could tackle any country in the world. That notion died a quick death when we moved to Bangladesh and I found myself struggling with the type of problems I thought I would shrug and laugh at, now. Wasn’t I the experienced, informed, enlightened expatriate? My struggle during our first year in Bangladesh is probably the main reason I never managed to finish the book I’d been asked to review. I just couldn’t bear to read another list of well-meaning solutions to the numerous problems expats women are likely to encounter when moving to a new country. I had enough just trying to deal with my own, and feeling thoroughly disgusted with myself because, come on ! I’d done this before, I knew all the ropes, and I should not (ah, the dreaded, blasted should”) have been having such a hard time of it. Which is why I think the scene described in that blog is more likely to happen in fiction.
In real life, expatriate mothers are much too good at wearing the mask of the efficient, multitasking general-in-chief of their little army of a family, and keeping it all together – as in carefully bottled in. Over the years, I have heard dozens of stories of women who went through grueling, amazing odds – grinning all the way. After all, “it will all fall together in the end.” The strong negative feelings, the anxiety, the loneliness, only come out when they cannot be seen, with their partners at work, much too busy to have time for any of this, the kids at school, and they’re alone in their new, empty house, apartment, or hotel room. Of course, “they” is “we”.
As soon as we’re out in public, meeting other expats already settled, the grin comes out invariably. There might be a few dispirited shrugs, we might even go as far as saying that we don’t like it “here,” but we usually downplay the negative feelings we’re harboring. We’ve all mastered the art of the understatement: “I can’t say I’ve fallen in love with this place” is one of them. And it makes sense. You can’t start complaining in front of perfect strangers, can you ? Some might show empathy. Some might even help. But some might judge you, mock you or make you feel like a debutante lacking inner resources and wit. And how are you to know which category they fall into, if you’ve only just met them ? Last, but not least, I won’t go into the politics of who is who, where, the gossiping, and what knowing this or that might or might not do to some husbands’ careers.
So, arriving in a new place can feel a lot like walking a tightrope strung high in a jungle you know little about. If you’ve done your research, you have some inkling as to the kind of creatures inhabiting it. But until you actually meet them, well, what do you know, really? And so, you walk your tightrope, the way you walk in life, I suppose. Some people just go for it, others move forward gingerly, carefully… As you go, you might encounter a friendly smile, an outstretched hand, and decide to trust them, because you need a little rest, because you’re bursting for some company, some conversation, and sometimes, you’re lucky, and the first branch turns out to be a strong, dependable vine that speaks your emotional language (chemistry matters, after all), other times, you think you did find such vine, but it turns out to be a mirage, and other times, you look for a long time, concentrating all your energy on walking that straight line, looking focused, erect, and as much in control as possible. Till you reach the other side, anytime between six months and a year or so after you’ve arrived.
Sounds like life, doesn’t it? You gotta walk your tightrope because nobody else can do it for you. Only, expats get to walk a new tightrope in a totally new jungle every few years. On the plus side, they accumulate several lifetimes of memories packed into one. They travel the world. They do things most people only dream about. And they build pretty amazing friendships that can last forever. The downside is, well, probably the place I’m in right now. No, I wouldn’t exchange my life for the world, and yes, I have fantastic friends I love dearly scattered all over the globe, and won’t that be dandy when we’ve all retired. But they’re far, and even though, in today’s world, Skype, Facebook, email and all these technologies make it so much easier to keep in touch ((remember what it was like for serial expatriates, only twenty years ago, running huge telephone bills when you just couldn’t stand it anymore?), when you are at the beginning of that new tightrope, in that new jungle, having to figure your environment all over again, to create a new social network of friends… it takes time, and it takes energy, and it takes grit, and stamina, and faith. And some days, that’s a lot…
So, to go back to the blog that prompted this outpouring of words, I believe many of us in that situation might want and very much need to shed a single tear (or bawl their eyes out) just out of sheer exhaustion. I also think most of us will never allow that tear to roll down.
Now, even though I am going through that very process at the moment, I am all right. This has been the easiest transition I’ve had to deal with over the years. It’s Europe after all. Mostly, things work and I don’t encounter mind-boggling situations like in developing countries (I won’t say it’s almost boring, to not provoke the friends who heard me complain bitterly about our crazy construction or plumbing issues in Bangladesh.) I just found out about a Zumba class happening in the early mornings, twice a week (with two school age children, I cannot disappear from the house every evening, and I already have Flamenco classes. Most activities in Belgrade happen at night), and this is sure to help me face the days more positively as I have truly missed Zumba and my Zumba partners at the Nordic Club. I may have found a hairdresser (even though I’m still to make an appointment) so I can finally have my highlights done, and that will be another major milestone. So, step by step on my tightrope, in the Serbian jungle.
For weeks now, I have been sporadically trying to access my blog. I had forgotten even my username. Finally, the issue was resolved, and I just went though a tour of this virtual niche I worked so hard at creating for a number of years (and that would include my previous blog, as I switched to this new format because access to blogspot in Bangladesh was totally unreliable), reading the dozen of drafts never completed, looking at the pictures, and feeling profoundly… displaced. It all seems to belong to another life. And I can’t even decide whether I like it better now.
I miss some parts of that previous life, very much. I miss the heat. I miss the smells of Asia. I miss the colors. I miss the people, too. Being a bit of a loner, I realize, retrospectively, how comforting it was to always be surrounded with lots and lots of people, including inside your home. Or maybe I just got used to it. After all, I was practically never totally on my own all these years. And even if I was not actively engaged with everyone, it was company. Sometimes, it bothered me. Often? I’m not so sure anymore, so yeah, maybe I’m just never happy. But now that I’m back in a European setting, living a life with more European standards, I feel a loneliness I had not felt in a very long time – the type of loneliness I experienced when I lived alone in New York City, or in Paris.
Writing in this blog also makes me feel displaced, as if I’m somewhat entering a space where I don’t quite belong anymore. I will have to think about it, and decide what to do. Maybe close this blog, and create a new one, open a blank notebook, so I can start scribbling again. I hope.