Today is the 15th of April. Taxes are due. It’s spring in New York: friends are posting pictures of cherry blossoms and other blooming things; Husband has been getting up at ungodly hours of the morning to watch the Mets play baseball or to watch the NY Rangers, who have not yet tanked the Stanley Cup playoffs. (The joy of sport is alive and well and sleepless here on the 37th floor). At breakfast, Husband is all “the Mets are on a real winning streak…” and his optimism is another sign that spring is in the air. (And, like spring flowers, this optimism lasts until early June, when it wilts and dies.)
Why does it matter that it’s spring in New York? As I say to my students as they struggle with their essays, “what’s the so what of your argument?” I can hear you saying the same thing: what’s the so what of it being spring in New York?
Well for one thing, spring means that the semester is almost over. Exams start May 10th and then the students leave for the summer, which means that my teaching year is over. But how can that be? I mean, didn’t we just get here?
And at the same time, haven’t we been here forever?
No. We haven’t been here forever; we’ve been here for exactly eight months, as of two days ago. On our four month anniversary, I wrote a post comparing that four month marker to the fourth month of pregnancy, which is (usually) when you can let out your breath after the worries of the first trimester. But by the eighth month of pregnancy, the novelty of being pregnant is over. Your back aches; your feet (which you haven’t seen in several months) throb; you haven’t taken a deep breath in weeks because all your internal organs are resting on your lungs, displaced by the blob that ate Manhattan now cartwheeling in your belly; you have the sneaking suspicion that you might, in fact, be pregnant forever.
And so. Here we are. Eight months into expat life, which now seems less like an adventure and more like…life. I drive to the grocery store in my little hatchback; I drive the boys to
soccer football practice; I teach my classes, read student papers, work at my writing projects. I’ve gotten used to the shower’s desalinated water, which is slowly turning my hair into straw that even Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t fix; I’m resigned to the fact that bookstores here sell lots of book-related products but not so many actual, you know, books.
Everything here feels like a life lived anywhere else; my daily existence seems regular, ordinary – just as waddling through life as a pregnant lady seems ordinary – and then you see yourself reflected in a shop-window or errant mirror and think “oh holy cats I’m pregnant!” You sort of forget: the hugeness of your body has become the norm and pregnancy seems like a perpetual state.
So too here. It’s just my regular life and then it re-hits me: I’m looking out the window at the Arabian Gulf. The grapes on the table come from South Africa, not California; and “storms” mean “sandstorms,” instead of rain or snow. Last week, in a beautiful moment of desert irony, the kids couldn’t go outside for lunch-time recess because it was “too sandy.”
Daily life means standing at the crosswalk next to three women wearing black abayas and shaylas, two older women in saris and shawls, four men in long cotton tunics and trousers speaking what sounds like Urdu, three guys in skinny trousers and pointy shoes talking in Tagalog, two French tourists, and a tall man whose impeccable white dishdash features huge gold cufflinks that sparkle in the morning sun (and yes, you could set that list to the tune of “Twelve Days of Christmas”). Daily life means seeing crowds of workers resting in the scarce shade of a date palm and knowing that they will be more respectful of me than would a similar group of workers in the US. Daily life means marking the hours of the day by the call to prayer (which always makes me wonder how Muslims in non-Muslim countries keep track of prayer time if they don’t have this app). Daily life means sunscreen, sunglasses, sandals; it means fresh lemon juice served with mint and sugar; it means dates stuffed with candied orange peel.
Daily life means conversations with other foreign-born workers that frequently sound as if we’re prison inmates: “how long have you been here? how long are you staying? when are you leaving?” People’s lives here seem more fluid; Liam has a friend who has moved nine times and he’s only 11. Daily life means that we spend more time together as a family than we did in New York, which is both good (family adventures, family dinner, family conversation) and bad (sibling bickering ratcheted to “Hunger Games” kill-or-be-killed mode).
When we talk about staying here for another year, I think about what I like about living here: the weather, the water, the slow pace, the new perspectives that come from being an outsider. And then I realize that the same items are on my list of miseries: it’s too hot; the water is polluted; there is nothing to do; I don’t fit in and I never will. I miss talking to my sister on the phone while I do the grocery shopping; I miss my mom always; I miss museums and public art; I miss the energy of life on New York streets; and even though I’ve made some lovely new friends, I miss my lovely old friends (old in the sense of long-time, not in the sense of, you know, old, because miraculously, we’re all still twenty-nine).
Eight months is a long time. And then again, it’s no time at all. As it turned out, I didn’t stay pregnant. But I’m not sure about this expat thing. It might be the new normal.
the sidelines at a recent football tournament