Posted on September 26, 2010
First published in Trespass Magazine
Can I let you in on a little secret? Moving countries is actually hard. Quite hard. Who woulda thought? It’s tricky enough, I’m assuming, when you move to a country in which they speak your native tongue. It’s that little bit trickier when you don’t. That fundamental disconnect takes its toll. I have been extraordinarily lucky and my hand has been firmly held every step of the way by a network of kind, open-hearted German friends. Lord knows I’d still be floundering around in the gutter without their local know-how, translation services and pure generosity.
Crossing the oceans in search of a new home is rife, so I have discovered, with irony. You are doing one of the most independent things you can do … but so many of the little things that make up one’s independence cease to exist whilst you find your feet. Turning on the TV for a couple of mindless hours. Going for a drive. Grabbing a magazine you can understand, watching a movie. Having your entire wardrobe and bathroom cupboard at your disposal. Things we take for granted, the easy things that take no concentration or thought, suddenly take a lot of concentration and a lot of thought (if the option of having or doing these things exists at all). Like, for example, buying ingredients for dinner. Making a snap decision on a bottle of wine, based on its back-of-the-bottle blurb. Buying the right exfoliant. You are dependent on the kindness of strangers for translation help, directions. You are dependent on the kindness of friends for transport, help making appointments, help meeting new people, help explaining to those new people that you need to meet them because you are in a new country and you don’t speak the language very well and you’re still finding your feet, feet that insist on being rather elusive.
Another irony is that you relinquish so much control when making this big move that is, in essence, about defining the direction of your life. About taking control of what you want and how you will go about achieving it. When you’re bumbling about in a new country, you are at the mercy of pretty much everything and everyone else. You don’t know the ropes, the way things work. You’re still clutching the phrase book, which is a different book entirely to the rule book and it’s the latter you really need to learn, but you can’t do it until you’re at one with the phrase book. So you attempt to grapple with both simultaneously, whilst going about building your nest and injecting some comfort into your new surroundings. You’re bouncing around in the saddle, waiting for that moment when the reins jostle within reach.
For a while, as you bounce, you feel like an imposter. Like everyone is staring. Like you’re always doing the wrong thing, things locals don’t do. Locals walk through the left door, not the right. And they don’t wear that. And they stick to this side of the path and they usually attempt to look this particular way when doing that particular thing.
At home, you are okay with standing out. You know the boundaries, you know when and where and how you like to push them and you know, largely, what the results of that pushing will be. Which is why you’re comfortable pushing in the first place. In a new country, a new culture, the boundaries are an Unknown. Reactions are an Unknown. Consequences are an Unknown. Here, you don’t want to stand out so much. You don’t want to be so obviously not a local. You want to go about your settling in, in as discreet a manner as possible. Before you know it, you’ve pulled back a little bit, retreated into your shell, only poking the tip of your nose out. And all the while you’re thinking ‘this isn’t me, I’m not giving this city, this new life, the right impression of me – this is just my snout. The rest of me is in this here shell. Can you hear me? This is just my snout.’
And then slowly, the dust settles, the ground stops being so slippery. Those elusive feet you’ve been waiting to find, appear, as if by magic, and you begin to walk with surer steps. The snout becomes your whole face, then you’re neck. You wake up one morning and what surrounds you is familiar. And you go out the front door, and you get on a bus knowing where it will stop and where you need to get out. You recognise signs and words. You know where things are in the supermarket and you can order your coffee without wondering if the rest of thhe queue behind you is sniggering at your clumsy manipulation of their language. And in the evening, when you get home, you realise your surrounds are no longer simply familiar … they are comforting. As comforting as that shell you’ve been loitering in since you arrived.
Next week, I’ll move again (houses, not countries) and hopefully it will be the last time I’ll pack my bag for a while. The process of familiarisation will begin again, as it will when I start a new job – but it won’t be as difficult. This city has begun to feel like home to me and from here on in, the changes will occur within its familiar surrounds.
The hardest part is over.