16 May 2013

The Expat Survival Kit III: One Year On

Hi Everybody!

Most of you are here, reading this, because you know me. Some of you are here because you've Googled "expat survival kit", or some variation thereof. This post is for all of you. (If you're here because you're looking for pictures of Egypt, that post is here.)

When last we met, I'd written two posts full of everything I've learned about moving to a new place, particularly a foreign country, without a job or any friends outside of your immediate family. Then I had a baby(!!!), moved from London to Dublin, and went into blog silence for... a year. Sorry about that. See above re: baby.

So. Now that I've been in Dublin for almost a year, how'm I doing? Am I taking my own advice? Is it working?

Well, I'll say this, I'm really glad I wrote that post in April last year. I still believe, intellectually, that it's much better in the long run to dig in and make yourself at home in the new place. But in my privileged position of having lived in the new place until it was no longer new, I'd forgotten what that first bit was really like, and how often it would be tempting to just put my head down and kill time until the next move. And I was unbelievably naive, in that I assumed having a baby would make feeling at home in a new place easier. (All you other parents can take a break to laugh hysterically now. I know, you're laughing with me, not at me.) I have needed my own pep talk from time to time.


Efforts aimed at feeling at home in Dublin:

I. The Irish Classes
The Irish accent differs from the American accent very differently than the British accent does. British English and American English are the same language, it's just they've evolved some differences in the last 300 years. Irish English, on the other hand, is English translated from Irish. So I figured the place to start in getting acclimated to Ireland, was to learn why people talk the way they do.

This was a ton of fun. I made sure Gino could come home by six every Wednesday night, and took myself off to the Conradh na Gaeilge in Dublin 2 for their Beginners Irish Class. I didn't learn much Irish, unfortunately: when I tried to speak it with a Dubliner, the response was invariably, "oh, gosh, I haven't thought about that since school, I've forgotten everything" (and when we went to the West, where Irish is still spoken as a first language, everyone I interacted with was from Poland). But I did learn enough to say "hello" and "thank you" and "it's raining" and "I have one daughter" and "a pint of Guinness, please" and about sixteen variations on "good-bye." And I gained at least glancing familiarity with the way language works around here, which means I'm less likely to need to do mental gymnastics to work out what the taxi driver has just said to me.

Of course, the best part was the tea and biscuit (tae agus briosca) break. The beginners were allowed to speak English in the otherwise Irish-only bar under the classroom building, so we actually got a chance to chat - a very important feature in the Class You Take as a New Expat. I even made a friend! We went out for a drink after class, and everything! Then she moved back to New York the week after the class ended. Oops.

I didn't sign up for the next term of classes, and I'm starting to think this was a mistake. It's not that I need to learn Irish in order to live here (and one two-hour class a week is not a good way to learn a language from scratch, anyway), but it was really the only thing I did that wasn't about being a mother. Completely aside from the tea and biscuits, it was really nice to have two or three hours a week when the thing I had in common with everybody was "we're all learning something new," and not "we all have babies at home."

II. The Gym
I finally found a gym with childcare! It's a half-hour walk away (I'll be honest, I call a taxi to get there about 2/3 of the time - I really need to learn how to drive on the left. And get a car), but I can sign my baby up in advance for up to two hours at a time, which is just exactly enough time to do both cardio and weights and take a shower after! The club has a cafe, as well - once when I'd pulled a muscle and knew working out would be counter-productive, I dropped my daughter in the creche, went to the cafe, and added 1000 words to the novel I'm (very slowly) writing.

III. The Expat Group
This... didn't happen. I know, I know, I said it was so important and then I didn't do it. I looked them up and the meetings were way out in a different part of the suburbs than I live in (and so very hard to get to without a car), and I didn't have childcare for the meeting times, so I just didn't join. However! In a fit of desperation I've joined meetup.com, and they have their own expat group there, and one of these days I will bite the bullet and join it. And maybe the "Dublin Writers" and "Dublin Book Club" groups, while I'm at it.

IV. The Playgroup
I'm still doing this, actually. My daughter, almost eleven months old, has moved from the "Babies" class to the "Wobblers" class, which is much smaller because most of the other moms from Babies have gone back to work by now. (Is "Wobblers" - the stage between "Babies" and "Toddlers" - a thing where you live? I'd never heard it before I moved to Ireland, but then, I'd never been a parent before I moved to Ireland, either.) It's not all that exciting - some singing songs, some playing with bubbles, some puppets. It's just really nice, not only to go play with other kids and moms, but to have an hour every week when someone else is in charge. And almost every time, at least a couple people will be up for going out to lunch after. It's almost like having a social life! Of course, it's a social life where all attempts at conversation have to be balanced with the need to keep our kids from hitting each other with their toy phones, but still. I've become close to a couple of women in particular from the class - those of us who didn't go back to work rather banded together - and I hope someday we'll get to go out, child-free, for that glass of wine we all admit to wanting when we're ordering coffees and Diet Cokes to go with our bagel sandwiches.

Which brings me to...

The Snag

There was one big thing I didn't account for when we moved to Dublin: that when you have a baby at the same time that you move to a new place, the only people anyone wants to set you up with are other new moms. There's no "oh, she sings too, she'll know which choirs you might be interested in" or "you're both teachers, you can talk shop." Anytime anyone gives you someone else's number, it's because "she has a baby your baby's age!"

At first, I thought this was just going to be boring, because we'd have to have the "baby pooping/sleeping/feeding" discussion over and over. And to an extent that's been true, though it turns out that (a) that conversation's a lot more interesting when it's about your baby's poop/sleep/food and (b) usually in the process of those conversations you actually learn a good bit about other things you have in common with another mum. But there's a much bigger issue I hadn't anticipated.

New mothers make terrible friends. I include myself in this. I cannot be counted on: if I say I'm going to be somewhere at a certain time, that guarantee comes with fine print saying "assuming my child doesn't get sick or decide to adopt a radically new nap schedule just for today or have a massive nappy blow-out as I'm walking out the door." I am more than happy to listen to what's going on with someone else, but it's hard to find a time when that conversation won't be interrupted by a baby needing me and/or I'm not so exhausted that I'll have trouble keeping track of the conversation. And if you have a problem, I have nothing to offer but sympathy. I can't promise to do any favors to make your life easier. I can't even reliably promise to show up in an appointed place at an appointed time to listen to you tell me about your life.

So to start with, I'm in a poor position to make new friendships: I'm a complete flake, have been for months, and can only hope that some bright future day will see the return of my brain and some measure of control over my day. And then it turns out that everyone with whom I might make friends is in exactly the same boat. To quote one of my mom friends, "I just looked at my text history for the last two months and realized that my entire social life these days consists of making plans and then cancelling them."

We all like each other. In a perfect world, we'd love to spend time together. We're just so damn tired, and so damn many things can go pear-shaped in between when we make our well-intentioned plans and when it's actually time to show up at the park. And that makes it almost impossible to get to know anyone well enough to count on her when you really need a close friend.

The Apology

To those of you who've been googling Expat Survival Kit: I'm sorry. I left out one big thing in my previous posts about successful expatriating, and it really matters.

All that stuff you have to do, to live in your new place rather than just get by: you have to keep doing it. Even when it's frustrating and discouraging and just plain old hard. You can't just do the one thing once and it'll all work out; you have to allow for false starts and dead ends and just the fact that it takes time to get to know people well. And that sucks.

But I still have to believe that it's worth it. If I found out we were leaving Dublin next week, I don't think I'd be happy. I think I'd feel like I missed out. Because I haven't really lived in Dublin the last ten months; I've just resided here. And I'd like to live here. I'd like to have lived here, after we move away. I'd like to have stories about more than just the weather and that one Irish class I took. I'd like to have people to visit when we came back. I'd like to have made an impact in the community where I've spent so much time.

Last month I took my daughter for a very short trip back to London, where she was born. We had a wonderful time and it was depressing as hell, because it drew my attention to everything I try to forget I miss. All the way back through Dublin in the taxi, I just kept wanting to turn around and go home. And then we pulled up in front of our house and my daughter's face absolutely lit up with relief - because of course, as she knows and I've been denying, our house in Dublin is home.

I've done it before, and I know I can make Dublin into a home for myself, as well as my daughter. And you, my dear googler: I know you can, too.

Slán agus beannacht.

So, that's that. Next up in blogging, Book Reviews! or: How I Learned to Read Despite Having a Baby. Next month, I hope? Sometime this summer, anyway.