Pondering the virtues of chaos over the illusion of order

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.IMG_2753 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.

IMG_2754In 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.

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A couple of disclaimers

When I first decided to write a blog, in April 2008, I never imagined what it would mean for me in the short and the long run. I had a book coming out, and writing a blog was a way of establishing a virtual presence, along with a website and the creation of a Facebook account.

It takes time for bloggers to find their niche, and their voice, and even though mine was always a blend, a platform where I could voice my thoughts about what matters to me (writing, expatriation, parenting, and a global approach to all facets of life), it has slowly evolved into what it is today. This is my space, and I have learned to fill it in my own way. If I can’t blog, for lack of time or inspiration, I no longer feel bad or guilty. It is a kind of journal, with visitors who are regulars (and a heartfelt thank you to them, and those who leave comments, as they mean a lot to a blogger) others whom I’ll never know. But a trend has started to emerge.

More and more, I receive emails from people who will soon relocate to Bangladesh or to India, or are considering such move. I’m always happy when I do, and I respond unfailingly, sending my thoughts, opinions, and information, because I know that sooner or later I will do the same, send emails to perfect strangers asking them questions about life in another country. It’s the wonder of a world that’s become virtual in less than a decade. When I moved to Nigeria, in 2001, I couldn’t find any current information about Enugu (only an old UNDP report that turned out to be outdated and totally obsolete.) Ten years later, one only has to surf the Internet to find information on expat websites and blogs like mine.

So,  I’m sincerely happy to share tidbits of my experience about our time in Hyderabad, or my current life in Dhaka, and I trust that people understand implicitly that the views and opinions are mine, and mine only. Still, in view of a recent stream of emails, I feel the need to clarify a couple of things.

1. I cannot help anyone to find work. This is not my field, nor my ambition. You need to do your own homework, and check the laws of your host country to find out about the possibility of getting a working visa, and if you can, how to go about it. And then, you need to do more homework to find out where and how you can find employment. There might be some relocation companies that do that, out there, but I’m not sure.

2. I cannot help anyone to decide whether it’s a good idea to leave everything behind (job, friends, family and life in the UK, Europe or the US) in order to follow their Indian boyfriend/fiancé to India because he wants to go back home and be closer to his family. There also, you need to do a lot of research about India (read blogs, read books, lots of books), maybe see a counselor, preferably with your boyfriend/fiancé, and I’d advise you to meet the family BEFORE you make a final move, etc, etc. I can empathize with your struggle, and I wish you all the best, but ultimately, the decision is yours and I cannot have anything to do with it.

Good luck to all who embark on an expatriate adventure.

My Global Bookshelf : The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, by Uma Krishnaswami

I have been sooooo looking forward to the release of that book, of which I had the pleasure and privilege of reading excerpts when it was still in the revision stage. The novel was not totally finished, but it already had the qualities that now shine through the printed story. A happy, boisterous feeling that leaves you thoroughly satisfied, your heart smiling and your feet ready to tap-tap-tap. Plus, it took place for the most part in the Nilgiri hills, where we went on our very first trip in India – our little one was 9 months old – and so, I’m also feeling a little nostalgic, now.

Dini must leave Maryland, USA, and her BFF Maddie to follow her parents to a small town in the hills of South India called Swapnagiri (which means Dream Mountain) where her mother will spend two years working at a clinic. Dini and Maddie are Bollywood movies fans, and they adore the famous actress Dolly Singh. And, would you believe it, Dolly Singh may well be hiding somewhere in these hills, nursing a broken heart. Will the fan and the actress’ paths cross each other ? Of course they will – in true Bollywood fashion. Which doesn’t mean Dini will not have to deal with some plot twists here and there…

What did I LOVE about The Gran Plan to Fix Everything ?

First, the obvious : it is lovingly written and crafted, it is funny in a tongue-in-cheek way (Uma mentioned somewhere being inspired by P.G. Woodhouse), it is a breath of fresh mountain air carrying the fragrance of blue flowers, and some goat smells, too.

The fusion quality : Dini’s parents are Indian, but she’s growing up in the US. Dini’s BFF is American, and she is as much a fan of Bollywood movies as Dini is. Emails, phone calls, and video computer calls allow both girls to remain in touch. Dini soon meets another girl named Priya whose parents are in Washington DC, but will soon be going to Chile, and then Haiti.  This is the kind of world I can totally relate to, a world where people from different walks of life, different countries and cultures, all learn from each other. I just can’t wait for my daughter, who will turn 11 in August, to read the book, but she had to wait, ’cause I had to read it first. Actually, I think I may even read it aloud, see if our 7-year-old can enjoy it, too. Oh, one last thing : we also get to “taste” curry puffs with a touch of chocolate, and dark chocolate scented with rose petals !

Uma, being of Indian origin, puts her own stamp on the English language, and I’m not talking syntax or grammar, here, but music, and a unique way of stringing words together. You can see this is someone who loves the picture book medium and studied it extensively. Her language literally sings and dances and follows some of the cadences of the Hindi and Tamil languages that she speaks, as well as English. Dini look-looks, and listen-listens, for instance, and a few Hindi words and sentences are woven into the story without any of the heavy-handedness that you sometimes get when authors use foreign words and then proceed to translate them, almost in the same breath.

As a writer, I loved all the references to plots and plotting, and how Dini, a true movie-buff, sees life through the eyes of a budding writer. Everything translates in terms of scenes, the place of the actors/characters in them, plots and their inevitable twists… Uma and Dini have a lot in common, for sure.

I also loved the way Uma describes parent/child, and adult/child relationships. It is refreshing – and a little cringe-inducing, also. Refreshing because you, the adult (OK, me, the adult) are suddenly reminded of the way you were at that age, and how some of your thought-process went  just like Dini’s. The cringe comes from the sad realization that  you need someone as talented as Uma to channel the authentic voice and feelings of that child who got somewhat lost when you took on the role of parent.

Which is probably why I so love reading, and writing for children, and I think all adults should continue to read some kids literature, at least from time to time.

I’ll end up this long review by saying that I will now wait for the movie version of this book. Come on, filmi people out there ! Whether you’re in the US or in India, this book has all the necessary ingredients to make a perfect family movie – complete with songs, and dance numbers, if you please !

The Grand Plan is on the last week of a month-long blog tour at Uma Krishnaswami‘s blog, Writing with a Broken Tusk.