Saturday, September 20, 2008

I'm going slightly mad

Ask my husband, he'll tell you. That's kind, tolerant and probably slightly terrified husband who looks after me a treat, by the way. This is no tale of sorry misunderstood wife, lonely and unappreciated.

Picture a dog chasing its tail - a happy image. Picture a guinea pig chasing its tail: hmm, girth to length ratio, shortness of tail, narrow field of vision - less happy. Guinea pigs, in my experience, pootle along utterly absorbed in the minutiae of their guinea pig lives, uttering happy musical mweeeeeps as the mood takes them. Is the guinea pig aware that she has a tail? Does she care what it looks like? Nope. Not for her the folly of the hamster, similarly proportioned, and driven by some strange psychological pressure to chase round and round a sodding wheel, for heaven's sake, in pursuit of .................... what, exactly? No wonder hamsters bite.

I think I'm more guinea pig. I do. Got the figure for it. Good range of mweeeeeps. Tail's a bit of a problem at the moment though.

I read an article last month about a family who'd moved from England to France, and were now moving back because it hadn't worked for them. The crunch came when the wife - who essentially had exchanged a full, settled and purposeful life for isolation and a gorgeous view, in a country where she didn't speak the language - discovered she was pregnant. "And in that moment her future unfolded with frightening clarity. If we stayed, she would struggle to understand the midwives and doctors, and once the baby was born she would feel even more cut off."

I sympathised. We really like it here, and we never had any illusions about blending in, but we don't fit yet: not quite tourists, not quite anything specific - we're just here!

For a start, I soon discovered the downside of being an English teacher here: it's the nature of the job that, though you spend hours of every day surrounded by Spanish speakers, since they want to learn English, it doesn't improve your Spanish! Another teacher called it living in a bubble of English. And of course, in the staffroom, we're preoccupied with the complexities of our own language.

Ditto when teachers get together socially: my beloved now knows a lot more than he wants to about the present perfect and the first conditional, and the practical and philosophical differences in meaning between, say, the present continuous in English, and the present continuous in Spanish.

And we find ourselves monitoring our own speech, and that of those around us. Ooops! That was 'since' with a past simple! And I used 'much' in a positive sentence! Madre!

When your first language takes up so much of your attention, it rather dampens your enthusiasm for spending your free time wrestling with the all-important second one. After a dozen years in an Arabic-speaking country, I know that you don't learn a foreign language by osmosis (or not as an adult, anyway) so I have to do the work - but sheesh!

All of which is rather getting in the way of living here, as opposed to being an observer. (Good for yet another expat blog, but.............). I've got email invitations to theatre, talks, discussions and poetry readings, hmmmm..... After a year here, I'm frustrated and impatient with myself.

But the guinea pig thing. (Oh yeah? What was that exactly?) Well, it's like this, see. It's about life, isn't it? You know - a place, a purpose, an identity? I'm what you'd call a late developer. Twice, in Bristol and Bolton, I'd just found my niche, focus, whatever you like to call it, and laid the foundations of life as a young wife, mother, neighbour - when outside factors (a company merger, an economic recession - no, the other one...) necessitated a change of location.

In our years in Dubai, I did lots of interesting stuff, learnt a lot, made friends, and wished, for the most part, that I could go home. This wasn't an option, for a variety of reasons, and I found ways of keeping hands and head busy, and accepting what had to be. I used to wonder if there was a kind of stubbornness there - that all that really lay between me and the contentment that many other expats felt was a carefully disguised sulk at not getting my own way. There's a good little martyr. But I never felt that I had choices, only that I had to do my best to keep up. I'm fairly sure that I'm my own worst enemy. Opportunities missed or wasted, because I was treading water and holding my breath until I found the current that would take me back to my depth. I wish I'd had more gumption, more imagination, more backbone.

So we're here, putting into action the plan - such as it was - that sustained us in those final years. Except. I'm adrift. I'm lonely. I have no patience. But I don't know what to do! When we left England, I had a small son, and we left behind a close circle of friends built around the stages of early at-home motherhood - parks and toddler groups, nursery, primary school - that included husbands and neighbours. Life involved playdough, housework, boredom, silliness, common experiences, and a focus - our children and partners, our homelife. Sometimes it was tense, sometimes suffocatingly dull, but it was solid, and we were all individuals working through the same stage.

In Dubai, school was across town, with maids, drivers and buses as an extra layer of insulation, social life was built around shared interests, and the close friends you made generally upped and bloody left. I abandoned knitting and sewing, planted some pots, got a job, joined a choir and a drama society, made dear friends who didn't up and bloody leave - and who blog! - survived a couple of horrendous crises, waved son off to independence in England, learnt some Spanish............. and................... left. But not to go home. (I know, what's home, especially after such a long time?) I miss my friends. I miss my students. I do not want to go back, but I miss being connected to people. I'm working on the networking thing, but I know I come across as a dotty old auntie sometimes, all over-wide smiles, ever-ready apologies, and comic gestures and facial expressions. Maybe I could do silent movies? Street mime? Ah..........!!! Of course........ Living statues! You really need to speak the language to network. What a shame that the babel fish is fiction. Dang!

This week has been grim: tears before bedtime, also before getting up and over meals. Oh woe was me. It had been coming on for a while, staved off by the demands of work, but the moment I took my thumb out of the dike for purposes of having time off, relaxing, and doing what I wanted, the puzzle landed in my lap with all the spitting insistence of a furious street cat. Claw! What was I going to do? Claw? What could I do? Claw! And who with?! Huh? Who?! And what was the point because who was it for and why are we in another country where we don't speak the language so we're bloody foreigners again and it's still hot and the bijou-piso's still too damn small - and are you making excuses and feeling sorry for yourself again?! - and - phphphnnyyyaaaAAARRGGHHHHHHHHH!?!?!?!?! Claw!

And before you lean as far away as possible because you've just realised I'm completely freakin' nuts and you're afraid it might be catching, may I direct you to the title of this post? You were warned. Whoever you are. If you are. (sniff). It's ok. I'm back at work in a week.

Anyway, I fought back with an expensive foray into water colours since I have no space for sewing, and no space to put any finished product (moving to a bigger place some time soon); shopping for my WWOOF trip; practising Spanish; blogging; reading; and attempting - huh! - to write fiction. Ha! Can't do life, can't do sodding fiction either! Claw!

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand what it all boils down to is that, for all the fabulosity of new life and adventure in gorgeous capital full of really interesting people, being foreign is hard work, even for people with the advantages of education and choice. Quite apart from the mechanics of shopping, sorting out utilities and reading manuals (even from foreign manufacturere, e.g. neither my Samsung mobile, nor my Nikon phone offer instructions in English), when you're tired and just want to relax, your own language is part of that. And when you want to join in with something local, get to know someone on their own turf - well, there's a language barrier isn't there?

And although I have plenty of acquaintances and colleagues, and I caught up with my sister and sisters in law at Dad's birthday bash, and yes there's the Internet, I miss the friendships I had, and am generally tired of transience. I'm auditioning for a choir next week. I went to a knitting circle on Thursday evening. I found a patchwork class yesterday. My provisional timetable for the coming year (starting October) makes all of these - and Spanish lessons -possible. The timetable may change, but something must pan out. Every mother has to find a new focus after her children move out. Everyone who relocates has to be patient and persistent. Not every couple get to start fresh adventures together after the first big one of building careers and raising a family. The really interesting stuff does take effort, and effort often hurts til you get used to the new rhythms. And if you keep going with this kind of paragraph you can suffocate under the weight of your own platitudes.

So I don't feel at home yet, but I know I'll feel different a year from now. We've come a long way in a year, whatever the shortfall from our hopes - expectations would be too strong a word. New country, new job, starting out again at 50 without the energy and innocence of 20, and empty nest too - our son has just moved into his hall of residence for the first year of his degree course, so I'm going to finish the scarf I started making for his birthday two years ago!

It's been clear for some time that we've returned to Europe in time for a global economic crisis far worse than the one that sent us to the middle east in the early 90s. Which is a bit of a sod really. At least we have a lot less to lose than we did the first time round - when we eventually lost our house. Our son is up and out, and we're doing our own thing. It doesn't mean that I know what I'm doing or where I'm going, but I've had my insanity week, and I think I've worked out my gameplan for the near future.

Meanwhile, my husband has just defrosted our USELESS refrigerator with hairdryer, newspaper, kitchen towels, wooden spoon and carving knife. He's talking about grocery shopping, but I think it would be a kindness to take him out for a beer.

Tonight we're going to see Mamma Mia! again - but in Spanish this time. Working on the language skills, see?


nzm said...

Welcome back from WWoofing - that went quickly.

You're not alone, as you have me, with the same ailment, as company.

I remember once talking to some Kodak colleagues (just as the company was going through major restructuring in which none of our jobs were safe) back in NZ in 2003. As we sat over a boozy lunch, we were wondering where we'd be in a year's time, and hoping that things would be better for all of us.

I remember asking them, "What if this is as good as it gets?" We all flinched at the thought, but those days were pretty good, upon reflection.

What to do? We've thought of robbing a bank, but we don't have a getaway car!

Onwards and upwards, I say.

Kate Walker said...

Hugs and more hugs

I know the feeling - yes - even staying right where you are, all the time, doesn't stop this happening. It's that thing called life.

You know where I am if you need me


LadyLuz said...

I know it sounds trite, but I know what you mean - down here in S.W. Spain the same problem, except the majority here speak a campo Spanish that's hard to understand.

I had to chuckle though...I've just listed you on my "Sane Sites" links on my No. 2 blog and here you are going slightly mad. Well, join the club gal.

MamaDuck said...

Thank you ladies! I didn't think I was entirely alone in this. Good to know that I'm in such company - though I mean that in a very caring and upbeat (and upwardly mobile would be good too!) sort of way, given that this sort of thing is about as much fun as raging toothache. So, changes we choose, changes that are thrust upon us, or more of the same - the ride continues, so we may as well ride together.

And I have been recognised as sane. Yay! Wait til I tell my beloved!

Keefieboy said...

I always knew u woz sane.