The Readjustment Bureau

Over the past week or so, it’s been all start and no go here at Little City HQ.

My laptop is littered with the remains of fizzled out blog posts, all gleefully begun in the spirit of a great adventure, only to fade like starlight.

Somewhere along the way last week, I lost my mojo.

Maybe it was temporarily misplaced under one of several hundred boxes we have finally finished unpacking.

Maybe I accidentally left it in another identical house in our compound, because they all look the same from the outside.

Wherever it was, every time I tried to get something nailed down, an idea committed to pixels, it evaporated in a mist of ennui.

In short: I’d hit a wall. A mental dead-end. The newbie expat honeymoon was well and truly over.

A camel, as not seen on the way to Sainsbury’s

Maybe we got lucky in our first few weeks here. We weren’t without a house for very long in the scheme of things (fellow expats in the school playground seem to wear their housing delays like battle scars); our stuff arrived in a relatively similar month to when we were told it would; nothing major had broken (not even the things that I wouldn’t have minded being broken) and the removal company even did most of the furniture assembly for us.

I whizzed through my compulsory medical for my visa last week in about fifteen minutes, which I’ve been assured is borderline unheard of.

Our entry into life here had been about as smooth as you could have hoped for.

But then the initial giddy rush of “we live here?” passed, replaced by a malfunctioning sense of humour in the face of queues in government offices, officialdom in general, the need to present yourself in person – multiple times – for everything, still getting lost, queues in traffic, queues to get bank cards, and then more queues to activate them, queues in car parks, the neverending horror show of driving, the inability of maintenance crews to turn up or, if they ever do, to fix anything, the great game of “Qtel says” (Qtel shop says: you’re a fibre customer so this needs to be done over the phone; Qtel call centre says – guess what? – you need to go to the shop)…

Wash, rinse, repeat.

There were days when the various commuting trips would add up to three, sometimes four hours behind the wheel. Was this what I’d turned my back on everything I’ve ever known for?

If I’m going to spend four hours in a car every day, I want it to be because I’m taking my child prodigy to the only national centre in wherever we live, for whatever they’re a prodigy in, so they can win an Olympic gold in 2024; not just to drop them at school and Mrs LC at work.

I wanted my money back; this wasn’t what I ordered.

Unnoticed, September turned into October; the weather gave no clues as it would do back home. Family and friends back in the UK were layering up on Skype; 39 and sunny again here. Where were the seasons? The colours of summer turning to a golden autumn? Not here in the constant dust.

Such mental wrangling is not, I suspect, uncommon among the freshly expatriated. After all, when you’ve lived for [redacted] years in one country, you’re not going to get into the swing of another in a month. Things that will soon seem normal are right now feeling strange, difficult, frustrating.

And those feelings are perfectly fine – as long as you don’t let them spread, or take it out on those closest to you…

In the end, it was yet another pothole the size of a warthog in the dirt track which tipped me over the edge. We’d been on the school run less than a minute before I hit it. I’d tried to avoid it but had instead swerved neatly into it. The air was thick with expletives and flying bananas.

The outburst that followed was out of all proportion to the incident itself, but was magnified and emboldened by a feeling of frustration that had been building over a number of days. I was not at anything approaching my best.

So I dropped everyone off and headed home, overthinking at every red light. That’s a lot of time to think.

“Read me out a list of the things that I used to not like, but now I think are OK.”

And when I got back, I opened up a blank document on my laptop and wrote the first thing that came into my head that made me happy we’d moved here.

It was last weekend. We were walking next to the beach at the weekend (note: not ON the beach; that would have cost us £50 for a day pass, which we weren’t go to pay having only turned up at 4:30pm, no matter how desperate the kids were for a paddle) and as Kid A surveyed the scene she said out of nowhere: “Not bad for September, eh?” before going on to wonder if we could come to the beach on her birthday (in late December).

That’s not a conversation we’d be having back home.

And I kept the document open throughout the day, adding scraps and notes and thoughts to it as they came to me.

Now, I am not the most naturally glass-half-full person you will ever meet. But I found the exercise very constructive; and slowly, one line at a time, it built up into quite a powerful argument.

Little things like the fact that we’re eating together far more as a family than we ever did.

That the kids can play in the street; that we rarely bother to lock our front door.

The camel we saw in the back of a truck on the way to the supermarket today.

That from first thought to splashdown, a swim in the pool after school is just seconds away.

(And with that comes the novelty of new punishments like ‘if you don’t X, then you’re not going swimming after school’.)

That the kids both love their new school because it’s pushing them a little bit harder. Kid A spent the weekend making a giant poster for her class topic full of facts and pictures she’d researched and printed out and coloured in. No one asked her to do it, but she felt inspired and thought it would be appreciated.

(She also ran for school council last week; she may not have been elected, but her manifesto – “I am kind and will turn up to meetings on time…” – was all her own work. Tip for next time: maybe ask if anyone in the house is a professional communicator who writes compelling presentations for a living? Just a thought.)

I’m lighter than ever. OK, not ever, but a combination of exercise, and way less booze, crisps and puddings has seen pounds fall off me without even trying. (Memo to self: need to make this bit longer if going to spin out to bestselling diet book length.)

All that time in the car gave me a lot of time to listen to the new Ben Folds Five album (even if every play reminds me that I won’t be seeing them when they return to the UK this winter).

It’s full of brilliant lines, but two really stuck with me last week as I flapped around in my fug of despair.

The first is from Do It Anyway, which is pretty self-explanatory: “It’s the standing still that should be scaring you instead.”

And then from Hold That Thought, which might very well be the best thing they’ve ever done, a timely reminder that things might change, but that we adapt:

“He falls about the place, but in time he somehow readjusts…”

Let the readjustment begin.

PS Join the (almost) million others who’ve watched the Fraggle-tastic Do It Anyway video. Guaranteed smiles, or your money back.


6 thoughts on “The Readjustment Bureau

  1. Burlesque October 3, 2012 / 11:31 pm

    Nat, rest assured that if you’re making everyone else chuckle as much as I am at your blog posts, then it is all worthwhile! Missing you lots 🙂

  2. Pernille Rudlin October 4, 2012 / 8:37 pm

    As I think you are well aware, you are in the expat adjustment cycle and probably won’t thank me for pointing it out. One thing I do want to add which these kinds of models don’t usually cover, is that, rather like the Kubler-Ross model of five stages of grief, actually you end up repeating the cycle, more often than seems necessary for sanity, or randomly dipping into one of the stages. And as you hint, quite seemingly trivial things can tip you back into positive mode. For me, in Tokyo, one instance of that was being asked directions by a sweet old lady in a kimono. Maybe her eyesight was so bad she couldn’t tell I was a gaijin, but anyway… made my day.

  3. rose070205 October 5, 2012 / 10:16 am

    It is so great when your children surprise you with their amazingness when you are faltering. Loved ‘Do it Anyway’. I happened to watch ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ the other night (as you do) and was almost crying with laughter. I now find Rob Corddry strangely attractive.

  4. Rach October 8, 2012 / 3:38 am

    You’re in the cycle, the expat honeymoon will wax and wane and it will be a cycle you will learn to love, I think you need a skype with some established expatees!

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