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.


River cruise

I’d often heard about The Boat Consortium, in the two years that we’ve been here.

Here is what the Bradt Travel Guide says about them. “Long-term residents in Bangladesh may eventually bump into someone who has membership in “The Boat Consortium”, a group of expatriates who have purchased and refurbished 3 vessels explicitly for taking leisurely cruises around the city. Generally these kinds of events will be by invitation only and involve significant quantities of alcohol.”

Well, I’ve now had the privilege of receiving one invitation, and I can confirm that all information above is accurate to the last detail.

One of my friends, whose extraordinary organizational skills and zest for life I already mentioned when I recounted our trip to Barisal on the occasion of International Woman’s Day, happens to belong to the Boat Consortium, and she brought together a group of sixteen ladies, the other night. We were to meet at 4 Pm, in order to reach Bashundara, where the boat is moored at the moment (the water being high after the monsoon), as early as possible. Night falls around 6.30 PM, here. And each of us was to bring something to munch on, or to drink.

I had no idea what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised when I saw the colorful boat waiting for us.

The upper deck is protected from the sun, and the floor entirely covered with large mattresses. One after the other, we walked the plank with the help of one of our boat men holding a long bamboo pole, hopped on board, took our shoes off and climbed the ladder. Our captain started the boat, and off we went !

Anyone who knows Bangladesh will tell you the country is best seen from a boat. Once on the river, you forget the ever-present filth, chaos, and pollution of Dhaka. You even forget the depressing statistics about over-population. Traffic and concrete give way to water, luxuriant vegetation, and the tranquil, peaceful feeling one experiences floating slowly down a river. It’s pure magic.

Of course, the occasional sign sticking out of the water reminds you that this piece of land has been claimed and soon, the water from which it emerges will disappear, and ugly buildings will be erected.

As you can see in the picture on the right, the ground is basically sand : it makes you wonder how these buildings will fare in the long term…

But we were there to have fun, and already, bags and coolers were being unzipped. Soon, plastic containers crowded the middle of the deck, along with bottles of wine and beer cans.

One of us had brought a Mean Martini cocktail that put us all in a great mood, and our host, never short of ideas, launched a game to break the ice and help the few newcomers to Dhaka get to know everyone. We each were to say a few facts about one of our friends. Easier said than done, in some cases, but it worked (along with the Mean Martini). Soon, everyone was mingling.

Here is the Mean Martini, complete with the olive, if you please

We spent the following three hours eating diverse delicacies, from Indian Chats to fresh spring rolls, chicken satay, baba ganoush, quiche and even some fantastic homemade cheese cup cakes.

Occasionally, we’d float past another boat, and exchange joyous greetings. One of them had Bollywood music blaring, and young people dancing on the deck.

And so, slowly, the gorgeous scenery lost its verdant colors, and the day faded and turned into night.

At some point (don’t ask me when) our captain turned the boat around. Lamps glowing in the dark, we continued to glide on the water, until we reached the point where the cars were waiting for us.

We were home by 9.30 PM, well fed, some of us more than a little tipsy, and ready to do it again very soon. Thank you, D.

Sports Equipment Made in Dhaka

Recently, Daughter number 1 had her Sports Day. Since her new school, this year, doesn’t have space or sports facilities, and the French School doesn’t have buses, they’ve come up with an arrangement. Grace International gets to use the French School’s very large field for Sports, and the French School uses Grace’s buses when needed. I only mention this to illustrate the point of this post. As I was watching my daughter and her school friends trying their skills at the High Jump, I noticed something.

See it ? Two good old-fashioned stands, the kind that you might find pretty much anywhere, a bamboo pole (now, this, you will not find everywhere), and to hold it? Two pens. The cap on this pen kept falling each time the teacher lifted the bar further up, and each time, she carefully put it back.

Fusion High Jump Equipment. With local mattresses piled up on the ground, and there you go. A far cry from the two wealthy schools with state-of-the arts facilities that our children attended in previous years, but it met the purpose, the kids had a great time, and we witnessed some pretty impressive jumps. And isn’t that what matters?

Zumba, my cure of choice against Dhaka blues

All the books on expatriation say it. When you find yourself in a “challenging duty station” (I like the diplomatic flavor of that), you need to find your niche, something to do that makes you feel good, whether it’s knitting, baking, volunteering with street children, spending all your time at your kids’ school or the spa, organizing coffee mornings, lunches, or afternoon teas, playing bridge or golf, whatever…

For me, filling my days with things to do is never an issue. I have novels to translate, stories to write, a blog… In fact, I’d need more hours in a day. The problem is that I work from home, which means my social life is basically nonexistent (my VIRTUAL social life, now, that one is thriving, but as retired but not forgotten expat guru Robin Pascoe might tell you, you gotta beware of having only a virtual social life – very unhealthy, that.)  Of course, I could never figure out whether my poor social life is a result of my working from home, of if I never really tried to work outside of home because I’m socially challenged. No matter. The bottom line is, when living in dump places like Dhaka (good-bye diplomacy), one needs to find things to do that make us feel good. In my case, it is imperative that said thing takes me out of my house.

Well, I found it : Zumba.

Nothing fancy, mind you. A handful of fanatics (OK, maybe I’m the only fanatic) get together and we all shake our bums (and everything else) in front of a TV screen blaring a fusion of musics. Yep ! No live instructor. But who needs one when you have those DVDs ?

A little backstory, because it’s the kind of story I love : according to the official website, Zumba is the baby of a Columbian Aerobics instructor, Alberto “Beto” Perez, who one day forgot his tapes and decided to use the latin music he had in his backpack to improvise a dancing work-out for his class – and they loved it ! A happy stroke of fate. In 1999, he took the concept to the US, and the rest is history. Today, Zumba is the largest dance fitness program in the world.

His last DVD series has music and dance styles that include cumbia, salsa, merengue, mambo, flamenco, reggaeton, soca, samba, belly dancing, bhangra, african, hip hop music and tango. The DVDs went from having him with two young women who did most of the talking, to a much more professional series with four different work-outs including a Zumba party that had about 6 to 8 people on stage, and what looked like a few hundred in the room, to the last one we were watching tonight. The Zumba Concert has a revolving double stage going up and down, giant screens, and what looks like thousands of people dancing along, every single one of them looking as if they’re in a kind of happy trance. Of course, in all of them, Beto is very much the Presence ! I mean, just looking at him dancing is enough to lift your mood. Picture a Latin version of Shahruck Khan – dark good looks, strong features, gorgeous body. Are you there ? And Goodness me, can he move.

As I was happily dancing, last evening, in a small school room, with a small TV screen, I was thinking how Beto didn’t only seize an opportunity, he also turned it into gold because he knew how to ride a global music and dance wave. Zumba is not only about exercising, and I’m tempted to say that’s precisely the reason it is such a huge success across the world. Call me French, but I could never understand people who sweat on machines. And I did try. Spinning ? You mean people actually do that without someone holding a gun to their heads ? Beats me. But Zumba ! Now we’re talking. I get to sweat and somewhat shape up and tone my drooping pre-menopause body, but those are secondary (if most welcome) side effects. Most of all, I get to dance to musics that lift my spirit, and connect me to Columbia, Mexico, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Cuba, India, and other countries around the world. I learn new moves and steps. Oh, and I get to watch Beto’s bare torso while I’m at it.

Is it any wonder I come out of each session feeling so light on my feet, and, yeah ! Happy ?!

Note to self: when feeling the blues in Dhaka, get out of the hole, and go Zumba !

Dhaka, yesterday, and today.

I have been corresponding with the wife of one of my husband’s UNICEF colleagues, as their family prepares to move to Bangladesh. We Skype and exchange emails, and this morning, she sent me a message about an apartment she found on the Internet. As I have, myself, been contemplating another move, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and walked there to see the building, and the apartment. It overlooks the lake, and has the kind of view I dreamed of, when we were looking ourselves, last year. I still do, in fact. It’s the best view anyone can get in Dhaka. But this is not a post about apartments.

My correspondent mentioned Google Map and I went there, and found photos of the park I was mentioning in my last post. Here is one, dated 2006.

Well, here come my own pictures of the same spot, taken a few days ago, five years later.

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What happened to that little bridge ? I was under the impression it was still under construction, but apparently, it’s been there a while, needed to be repaired, and, well, who knows how long that might take ?

And here is another picture from Google Maps. No date on that one.

Where did all the water go ???

A lot of whining, and a little spark of beauty

Yes, it’s been a long silence. My workload is to blame, definitely. But not only. Mostly, my inability to blog for the past weeks, months, has to do with an overall sense of defeat as I watch my reserves of (positive?) energy slowly trickling out of me. I need to be parsimonious in the way I measure and distribute it. Work must be done (contracts have been signed and will be honored), and the demands of parenting cannot be ignored : homework, making sure my daughters attend their diverse activities, getting them bathed, feeding them dinner, and thank Goodness for all these mundane day-to-day tasks, and for my children’s laughter and needs, because even as they sometimes exhaust me, they also keep me from sinking into a state of stupor, and save me from self-destructive tendencies. By nine, most evenings, my whole body, mind and soul can think of one thing, and one thing only : crawl into bed with a book, and escape reality.

My mistake, and mine only, was to have agreed to move into a house that I knew could never be the kind of home that I need, wishfully (and fool-ly) thinking that the advantages it offered would supersede its major flaws :  it was a house with a small patch of garden, as opposed to an apartment, and it was located close to our youngest daughter’s school, and close to most everything – and knowing the reality of the Dhaka traffic, that argument weighed heavily in the balance. Also, the rent was cheaper, and the UN having upgraded Dhaka last year (since it is such a fantastic place to be !) the hardship money was suddenly slashed (with one home-leave every other year only, as if the option of spending the whole summer break here could even be considered!), sending all our budget calculations out the window. We no longer had enough to reach the end of the month (I know, amazing, but true) unless we cancelled our school-break trips outside the country (and that was not an option.) So, I ignored my misgivings about the house. I told myself I could do this.

I overestimated my levels of tolerance.

And we moved.

Into a house surrounded with dwarfing buildings that stand in the way of all natural light and force me to use electricity from morning till evening. That would be bad enough, but there is more. The plumbing started collapsing on us, and for the past weeks, the cave has also become a stinky sewage hole, with workers banging on the walls and pipes right outside my office, toilets condemned or we find ourselves literally walking through piles of shit, soiled water coming out of the showers, and our electric installation breaking down at the most frustrating times.

This morning, I decided to go for a walk in the park close to our house. Temperatures have dropped, and so have humidity levels. The air feels nice.

Now, don’t get excited. Said park would most likely be beautiful if only it were looked after. As it is, we have an enclosure fringed with garbage, and inside, two holes containing low levels of stagnant water, a small bridge under construction (seemingly interrupted) straddling it from one side to the other, dirty, uncared bushes everywhere, and a tiled path all around.

As I tried to alternate fast walking and jogging (I should also add that my depressed mood has been compounded by the fact that I’m developing a most unsightly roll of fat on my hips and waist. Call me vain, but I’m totally freaking out, because as someone approaching menopause, I simply do not want to start putting weight on), I tried to breathe in and out, and relax.

Tried to think positive thoughts. As in: come on, it’s not that bad, you can do this, it’s only five weeks and two days before the Christmas break, and then, the rest of the year will fly as it did last year, and then, it will only be one more year… Surely… Hopefully… It’s not so bad. There are people out there with many more problems than you have. Real problems. You’re incredibly privileged, and you know it. And bla bla bla, and bla bla bla. I could almost hear my parents forcing me to finish my plate and reminding me of starving children in Africa.

Of course, the internal pep talk (or those voices from the past) did nothing at all to improve my mood, or smooth out the frown on my face.

There weren’t that many people around me – Dhaka is, after all, one of the most densely populated cities in the world. One or two women wearing salwar kameez and chunky running shoes, casually walking and chatting. One lady in a black burka. Two groups of six to eight men walking together. One or two lone men stretching on the sides.

Suddenly, I saw a bright patch of colour,  a pink so radiant, so totally unexpected in this place where dust and grey seem to overshadow everything else, that it brought me to a halt.

Several gorgeous lotus flowers rose from the water, majestic, totally oblivious of all the dirt and neglect around them, their insolent beauty a welcome slap to my slushy train of thoughts.

People who get out of Dhaka, and actually see Bangladesh, say that it is a beautiful country. Unfortunately, I have not been outside the capital except for a day out on a boat, a few weeks after our arrival (and it was OK, but honestly, nothing to write home about either – maybe because we were still too close from Dhaka). My husband’s commute to the office and back means a minimum of two hours stuck in bumper to bumper traffic. That’s on the good days. He will not hear of spending two or three more hours in the car to get out of Dhaka on the week-ends, and I can’t say I blame him. Actually, I don’t want to spend two, three hours or more stuck in traffic, with the kids, on a Friday or Saturday morning either.

Vicious circle.

I guess I’m just going to have to take it one hour at a time. Day after day.

And remember these pink lotus flowers in the dirty, stagnant water.

It’s the little things that count…

About a year ago, I mentioned (here) how there’s always been a traveler’s tree in our garden since we left New York City, (in Nigeria, and then in India) and how I was comforted when I saw one in the narrow front garden of the building where we’d soon be moving, in Dhaka.

We’re about to move again, even though we’re only changing neighborhood, this time, and I’ve been having a lot of mixed feelings. I can’t say I’m looking forward to spending the next several weeks surrounded with packing boxes, not to mention the stress of trying to get our new house ready for us to enter it (which means dealing with painters, A/C people, tailors, carpenters, and let’s not forget a landlord who is quite happy to see us upgrade his house, as long as he doesn’t pay for it, or as little as he possibly can.) Today, I was standing on the house porch, trying to escape the drilling noises as I waited for the tailor, watching the monsoon rain, when I noticed a small traveler’s tree in our garden ! I had not seen it until then.

Call me crazy, but I felt better. Just like that.

The Expat Life, or the art of taking life-altering decisions in the blink of an eye

If your partner works for an international organization, the kind that seems to not give a hoot about the families trailing behind, the process goes something like this.

You’ve been at your duty station long enough to know that you must start studying rotation lists. In some cases, you wait for those vacancy bulletins with an eagerness that borders on obsessive mania (when we were in Nigeria), in others, you have profoundly mixed feelings (as when we were in India). You start selecting postings according to a list of prerequisites : in our case, the number one priority is schools ! We learned that the hard way ; out of our six years in Hyderabad, only the first, when our older daughter was still in Kindergarten, and the last, after we’d switched her and her then kindergartener sister to another school, were satisfactory. The rest was of the pulling-one’s-hair-and-not-sleeping-at-night-worrying-about-my-child’s-education variety. Then come the living conditions and the financial package.

This is when I usually spend days searching the Internet, checking websites like Tales From a Small Planet, the Expat-Blog, and sending emails to complete strangers, asking for information. Then, comes the waiting. And more waiting. Until you hear that all the research was for nothing. And you start all over again.

But one day, when you’re about to give birth to a baby (Nigeria) or just happily enjoying your vacation in France, with zero issue about returning to India where you’re now happily settled – especially since the children switched to their new school –  you’re told that you’ll be moving to Bangladesh in August, and you’ll have exactly six days to pack and move your house, plus, aren’t you the lucky ones, you’ll arrive in Dhaka one afternoon before school starts for your children – the only school which is able to take them, because this late in the day, they have no place left anywhere else anyway.

What can you do but grin and bear it ? I read a good post somewhere, recently, about the high levels of tolerance of trailing spouses. Indeed.

So, you put on your happy face, and show up at the new school on the first day, ready to LOVE that school, because if you don’t, aren’t you in for some miserable time. And more often than not, you do. Love it, I mean. Sometimes for the right reasons. Other times, just because if you didn’t, the worry would drive you insane. If there is one thing I’ve learned, in my ten years+ life as an expatriate mother (being an expat as a single woman was not the same ; it did not carry the same consequences, at least for me, as a writer and a translator with a portable career) it’s the ability of the expatriate to consider their life circumstances through a very peculiar looking-glass, one that allows us to diminish the real impact of our situation as much as we possibly can. It’s a mixture of wisdom – something akin to the beginning of the famous Serenity Prayer : grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference – and total denial.

The trick is to know when we’re being wise and strong, and to recognize when we might be going into denial, which then requires to switch gears and back pedal to that second part of the aforementioned prayer.

Because it takes courage to change things, especially when those changes involve your children, who do not have the experience and hindsight to know that a school they like, where they have their friends and habits, is not the right choice for them if it does not challenge them, does not teach them the basic curriculum that will allow them to be at their grade level, or lets them get away with pretty much anything, as was the case in our first international school in Hyderabad, India.

It takes courage to see your child cry, and cry when you tuck her in at night, because she misses her friends, because she finds it hard at the new school, ’cause, guess what, they have all these funny rules about not crawling under the tables, interrupting the teacher, or throwing paper balls across the classroom. Plus, imagine that, they now have to learn their multiplication tables ! It takes courage, and it takes persistence to listen to them, dry their tears, and explain, again, and again, and yet again, why it may be hard, now, but they will thank us, later. Like when they hear about their good friend who moved to another country and found he had to repeat a class.

Next school year, our daughters will enter their fourth school in four consecutive years – a decision we’ve had to make in a matter of days in order to secure their places. I have lost countless nights of sleep over the matter since April (which is when we realized that our older daughter’s maths level was appallingly low, in spite of a report card at the end of January stating that she was at her requested grade level, and several emails to her teacher inquiring about the alarming dearth of homework throughout the year, and said teacher replying each time that all was well.)

I have mixed feelings about where they will be going next year. It’s very different from what they’ve known up to now. This new school is very small, and has none of the perks they’ve grown accustomed to: nice campuses, great sport facilities They teach a British curriculum, which will be another difference. And they will have to sit through Bible studies. As someone who grew up with a very Catholic Spanish mother, and spent a few years in a Catholic school, you do NOT want to start me on that one. And yet, it feels somewhat right. It’s not perfect. Then again, there are no perfect schools. But the environment seems to fit our values, if not all of our expectations, better than the previous one. Our kids spent a trial day there, and they liked it. I was amazed to see the confidence, and ease with which they both settled into this new place where they knew no one. I’m so proud of them.

I now need to renounce my own dreams of grandeur. Because the truth is, I liked entering their previous campuses and admiring how beautiful and well equipped they were, and thinking that I was giving my children opportunities I had never had. But this was me stroking my maternal ego, and forgetting what really matters : a solid education and sound values.

So far, this posting in Dhaka has all been about tolerating. Our apartment is nice, but we need to move, and the house we will most likely move into is kind of okay, but I doubt I’ll ever really like it. It just makes sense, in our current situation. Same for the school. Same for pretty much everything. If I can tolerate it for another two years (hopefully not more), the time will come again to start studying rotation lists and to send emails to strangers about our next location. And to be prepared to shift our lives, yet again, most likely in the blink of an eye…

Hartal in Dhaka

Hartal has become a part of my everyday vocabulary since moving to Bangladesh. Every once in a while, a general strike is declared and the whole city basically shuts down. As we live in what is called the diplomatic enclave, an area where most embassies sit, I cannot say that hartal has bothered me that much throughout the year. Shops are closed, so you better have groceries at home, and my husband had to hire an ambulance to attend some meeting, recently, but my daughter’s school continues to operate ; they just ask that the children don’t wear their uniform. Of course, only three or fours kids show up in each class, usually.

We had a hartal two Sundays ago, and this past Sunday AND Monday were also hartal. As we’re so close to the end of the school year, and I knew they would just waste their time in class, I decided to keep them at home. I made sure they worked in the morning, and took them to the swimming pool at the club, in the afternoon.

Yesterday morning, I was buying some presents for the family back in France and Spain, and we passed the shell of a bus. The driver, or the owner, must have decided they were not going to loose a day’s takings. Or maybe there is another reason I don’t know of. In any case, and as you can clearly see, it was set ablaze. According to the newspaper, another bus and several vehicles met with the same fate. I wonder what happened to the bus drivers, and the passengers.

Rant : Do NOT make a mockery of piano playing and music, please.

Growing up in our family, music was THE most important thing right after school work. We didn’t do sports. We did music. My sister, brother and I all played at least one instrument. (I tried the cello, on top of the piano at some stage.) Our week was divided between school, and running to the “conservatoire” where we all had our classes – piano, theory, violin, cello, you name it. And on week-ends, we ran from orchestra rehearsals to concerts, auditions, exams, or private tuitions.

The little academy we attended in the 9th arrondissement of Paris was led by a fantastic man, a man with an infectious love for music and children. His name was Alfred Loewenguth, from the Quatuor Loewenguth, and even though he died many years ago, I still see him interacting with us, cracking jokes, conducting the orchestra, and always, always, sharing his passion for music. He was truly an inspiration.

I was reminded of him, yesterday, when I attended my daughter’s Piano Concert at their current school. I did mention recently that I need to write about our experience with international schools, but it’s a long, very complex story/issue, and I would probably need several posts. For now, let me focus on yesterday’s piano concert and what it brought home for me.

Our family was of very modest means. In fact, I realize more and more the sacrifices that our parents made in order to pay for all these lessons for three children. The people around us were pretty much the same. Lower middle class. Middle class. But our music made us very rich indeed. It was all about learning our instrument and getting better and better at it, listening to GOOD music and becoming a discerning musician, even at an early stage.

My daughters’ school gives its pupils the possibility of taking piano lessons, twice a week, with an expatriate teacher married to a Bangladeshi man. At first, we thought it was a great opportunity. She comes from the Eastern bloc, and they’re usually very good musicians, and solid teachers.

By Christmas, I knew that this arrangement was not satisfactory, but we’d already payed for the lessons, and there was so much to take care of during this year of transition to our new life in Bangladesh, I had no choice but to let it go. Next year, I’m finding another teacher. Someone who’s invested in sharing her passion for her instrument, someone who is able to choose a piece according to the level and capacity of her pupils, someone who actually listens to the children when they’re playing, as opposed to talking on a cell phone or painting her long nails (quite telling for a piano teacher).

In the meantime, I had to sit through a piano concert that was, in my opinion, a masquerade.

To begin with, the piano was pushed to one side of the stage. I entered the auditorium a few minutes late (having found myself stuck in traffic, after a crazy episode at an ATM machine that spewed a ticket stating I had just received 20 000 Taka, and then died on me without having delivered said amount) and wondered at this strange stage setting – until the child who was playing finished her piece… She bowed (very nicely) and the teacher walked out on the stage with a medal, after which they both paused in front of a photographer. This happened in the MIDDLE of the stage, precisely where the piano should have stood.

Now I got it! This was not so much about children learning to appreciate music and mastering a piano piece, as it was about… the teacher showing off her high heels, her silk dress and coat, and boys and girls wearing anything from their Sunday clothes (well it would be Friday clothes, here) to sparkly gowns of the type I have never owned myself, and I will soon reach a half century on this earth.

Want to hear what else had me grinding my teeth, in my seat ? The photographer (that photo thing was a very big deal) kept walking to the children sitting at the piano to push their hair from their face before he took his pictures ! I mean, WHILE they were playing !!!

Two young girls, dressed for a ball, stood at a lectern, and announced the names of the players, and the title of the piece they were going to play. As a lot of what I heard had nothing to do with classical or jazz music (most pieces were transcriptions from the whole movie repertoire – I came out with the Love Story theme stuck in my head), they never bothered to mention the composer, not even for the very few (including my older daughter, but she and I had chosen that piece, against the teacher’s advice, and boy, am I glad I put my foot down for that one!) who played pieces by Beethoven, Mozart or Chopin.

Do I sound angry? Actually, I think I’m sad.

Of course, my daughters were excited. The little one insisted on wearing her fairy dress, and she looked like an angel, and played very well, a piece far too easy for her, after the teacher had chosen one far too difficult, and only realized it three weeks before the concert ! My older daughter did pretty well, too, considering the fact that she has to practice on our digital piano, with keys that will not come back up after they’re pushed down (a direct consequence of the move and something that cannot, apparently, be fixed). Most importantly, I tried to explain to her that her piece was actually one of the most difficult I heard, yesterday. It was a complex Mozart Menuet, and required technique. It was not a wishy-washy transposition played with lots of pedal so as to muddle the whole thing up, and impress people who know nothing about music. (yeah, I know, I’m getting snarky).

I think that, more than anything else, what this parade of a concert brought home for me, yesterday, was the fact that even though we didn’t have much money, growing up, we did have access to what really matters.

Our daughters’ international school is attended by very wealthy families of Bangladesh. The cars with drivers waiting for the children, each day, are a catalogue of luxury brands (Porshe, BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, you name it). The school provides bus transportation, but only a ridiculous number of children use it (ours do, of course). The campus is gorgeous. Their auditorium is state-of-the-art. They have computers, tennis courts, a football field, a swimming pool, and they bring in their teachers from all over the world (some great, others not at all, I might add – being a foreigner does not guarantee that you’re a good teacher, and we got confirmation of that fact, this year).

But you know what ? I think I’d rather see my children in a more modest environment, running around with kids who look their age (as opposed to 11, 12 or 13 year-olds parading in evening gowns, perched on 5 inches stiletto heels) playing music for the beauty of it, and not so their parents can have their picture at the piano for the world to see, and most important of all, learning good, sound values, acquiring work ethics, and understanding that… all that shines is not gold.