"Keep working on a plan. Make no little plans. Make the biggest you can think of, and spend the rest of your life carrying it out." Harry S. Truman

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Decorating our house with local art.

When I first arrived, an expat who's been living here for a while gave me a list of shops where I could find... this, and that. One drew my attention immediately because my friend mentioned that it had many local handicrafts. I think it's one of the first shops I visited, in fact. Here is what I saw as I went up the stairs of that small building.

The pictures were taken with my phone, and there wasn't much light, so they're not very good. Still, it gives an idea.

Inside the shop, which does, indeed, carry very pretty things made locally (name of the shop is JATRA which is a popular form of Bengali theatre) there was more of this beautiful art.

I bought a few pretty cups painted with the same kind of art, and as I was paying, found out that it is possible to hire the artists. It's just a matter of making an appointment, and giving your address. They then come to your home, office, school, whatever, and transform a boring wall into something brimming with life.

Three different styles are available, and the price is calculated according to how many square feet are painted.

As I type this post, I have three artists (two adults and one young boy whose age I wonder about) working right inside the apartment.

Before and After pictures to come in another post.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A visit to the slum

So, the title is bizarre. Are slums something to be visited ? Of course not. But this particular slum is located on the banks of the lake, just across the river from our hotel, and the stark contrast between our life, and the lives of the people and children living a few meters from us seems even more glaring when you have it under your nose on a daily basis.

Of course, we are used to the blue tents that pop up on all the constructions sites, in India, tents where entire families live for the duration of the work, until they move to another construction site. And of course, I am forever trying to highlight how lucky we are compared to all those who have nothing, or next to nothing. My children listen to me with that expression on their faces that's part baffled, part all-knowing-bored, so that I never quite know what they understand, and wether they even listen to me.

So when a few weeks ago (yes, we'd been here a week, or so) I received an email from a person involved with an NGO helping this particular slum, and inviting all who wanted to come and bring paper, crayons, pencils so they could organize a drawing contest, I thought this would be an opportunity to get a little closer and allow our daughters to maybe understand better what I mean with all this clumsy/sententious talk. Especially as we had seen these same children on the lake below, fetching rags and what not from the water aboard their little rafts.

I cannot say it was a success. The children were hot, bothered and maybe even a little scared by the intense proximity, the smells, etc, and they ended up leaving with their father, who knows all there is to know about slums, while I stayed a while longer, interacting with the children, and having a blast taking pictures, and showing them.

Bangles, conveniently hanging from the ceiling/roof.
At some stage, I was stuck in one room/shack with something like twelve kids. Each child had a piece of paper, and there were bags with crayons on the bed, but nobody dared touch them. We waited a bit, and as nothing happened, I suggested they take the bag of crayons, open it, and start their drawing. They were so eager to begin. 

All the children in that little room drew a house, local fruits..., and the national flag !

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Shopping in a new country

The last update on my Facebook page goes : I miss Q Mart !!! Q Mart is the supermarket where we found pretty much everything we needed in terms of foods, cleaning supplies, etc, during our six years in India. It was our regular supermarket. I know. How more pathetic can it get, right? And yet...

When we arrived in Hyderabad, Q Mart was on the second floor of an ugly, small building, a little place crowded with dusty, overflowing shelves. But then, it moved across the street, and became this shiny, two floors, luminous supermarket where we found new surprises almost every week.

Adios India. Hello Bangladesh. On my first day alone, the driver took me to the places where expats do their grocery shopping. I looked around, was not overly impressed, but as we were staying at the hotel, and I was in my newcomer-eyes-wide-open-honeymoon phase, I didn't look too closely. There didn't seem to be much in terms of cheese, apart from the same old imported Cheddar, and some canned brie or camembert from Denmark, but, oh well. We'd survive.

Then, a couple of days ago, I realized that if we are to camp out in our almost empty apartment, we need cleaning supplies in order to scrub the place properly before, and once we move in. And so, here I am back at the supermarket, standing in the aisle, looking at bottles of pink, blue, green and yellow liquids with labels written in an alphabet I can't read, wondering how I will know which one is the floor cleaner, and where are the brushes, and I don't see the dishwashing sponges, and everything looks so foreign I feel a big lump in my throat. Of course, it's not a big deal.  I, the seasoned expat who's been there, done that, know that, and because I know it, I breath deeply and go in search of a basket. I can't find one, but they have small carts, the type that children love to push in supermarkets.

I take it back to the aisle, return to the row of shelves, grab a bottle at random, and unscrew the tap to smell the content. Well, yes, if I'm not going to know what I'm using, at least, it's got to smell good! A few people stare at me, probably wondering why I'm spending so much time in that aisle, and what on earth am I doing, anyway, sniffing all these bottles? I start filling the small cart, and each time I touch it, some sticky stuff remains on my fingers. I wipe it on my pants, thinking I will empty the jar of antibacterial gel as soon as I reach the car. Finally, I walk to the cashier, and honestly, I'm not feeling so hot, and that's when I see a separate shelf carrying the pink bottles of Lysol that I used in India ! I take one and feel like kissing it. It's like I just got reunited with a long lost friend.

Of course, I still have to find buckets, and a broom, and a mop...

I ended up visiting a couple more shops before I got everything I needed, and you understand, now, why I say that I miss Q Mart? Who wants to spend more than two hours shopping for cleaning supplies? Then again, once I know my way around a little better, I won't waste all that time, and by then, I'll know that I'm home - meaning a place where I've lived long enough to know where to find the barest necessities.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Another kind of exploration

So, we are still waiting for shipment to arrive, still waiting for apartment to be cleaned, repainted, etc, but this may well happen before said shipment reaches us, and after a month at the hotel, the overall feeling is that time has come to move in already. Which means camping out for a couple of weeks, or so... We can do that, right?

And so, the wheels start spinning in my little, overcrowded head. What does a family of four need, absolutely, in order to camp out in a big, empty apartment for a few weeks?

- Mattresses. Fortunately, one of our new friends, here, offered to lend them to us. Check.
- Sheets, linen, pillows, towels. I brought them in one of our suitcases. Check.
- Plates, glasses, cutlery. As luck would have it, Bengladesh is a big exporter of all types of chinaware. So, this morning, I entered one of the dozens of shops you see all over town, and bought a set of Pierre Cardin plates (can't take the French out of me, entirely, ever, it seems, but what can I say? The plates were cute.) And some bowls. And glasses. All we need is forks, spoons, knives, a couple of pans, and we're all set. Check.
- We also need a table and four chairs. I can't possibly ask the kids to eat (although I bet they'd love the idea) or do their homework on the floor. And if they can, I'm the one who will not spend three weeks working on my translation (due in December, clock is ticking) while sitting on a tile floor. There again, no issue. Another new friend  (do I need to emphasize the importance of quickly establishing a network of expat friends when moving to a new country?) sent me to this market (picture left). It's on the second floor, she said. What she didn't tell me was that I would find a maze of hundreds of shops selling pretty much everything under the sun, and some more. As it turns out, we can buy a table and four chairs, and already agree on a reselling price, so that in two or three weeks times, when our shipment arrives, we can bring them back to the same shop, and get a slightly lower price for them. A bit like renting. Isn't that marvelously convenient?

Next on my list of necessities: cleaning supplies. This will be another post.

Monday, September 13, 2010

First exploration of Dhaka

Three and half weeks into the school year, and the kids have their first school break (8 days) for the long Muslim festival, Eid-ul-Fitre. It celebrates the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. The last days before Eid, we saw what it supposed to be the worst in terms of traffic, in Dhaka. Or so we're told. We also saw the city empty itself as entire families returned to their villages. And so, the last few days were quite peaceful, and we took advantage of that to take a cruise along the Dhaleswari river (more about that in another post) and to go and visit the old Dhaka. So far, I had not seen much, except for the Gulshan area, the Baridhara embassy zone, a busy street in Banini, and the airport road.

Old Dhaka reminded us somewhat of Charminar, in Hyderabad. Small streets, cables running everywhere, and I mean, everywhere...

Cables, cables, and more cables. And to think that it works.
and all of a sudden, the remnants of what must have been a beautiful old house,

or a small mosque.

We also went to see the docks where a long line of ferries waited for the passengers they would transport back to their villages, and we watched all the action there. People coming and going, loading or unloading boats, carrying bundles or boxes on their heads, repairing sandals, selling pan, etc.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

On basic social skills, and finding them lacking.

One of the obvious consequences of moving to a new place is that you meet new people, you create a whole network of acquaintances - some of which may eventually morph into friendships. This means going up to people you don't know, or maybe you saw them somewhere but have not been formally introduced, but in either cases, the simple fact that they look foreign - like you - means that you can, and often will, strike instant conversations with them.

This is a rather personal statement, but I never realized until now how socially handicapped I am. Or no, let me rephrase this. I was somewhat aware of the fact that my social skills are rather poor. I grew up in a small family unit, with parents who did not entertain at all. Our holidays were spent with my uncle and aunt who'd come from Spain to find work and a better life, and never had children. They spent their twenty + years in Paris with their heart still in Spain, saving money for the moment they could return to Spain, which is exactly what they did at the first given opportunity. Our vacations were mostly spent in Spain, with another aunt, a couple of cousins, and that's it. We didn't have friends over, and I may have gone to two birthday parties in all the years I spent in school. Then, as destiny would have it (but then, I probably pushed that destiny), I have spent the majority of my professional life working from home, and having limited day to day contact with the outside world. Yes, I travelled extensively. But with a backpack on, always on the move. And yes, I forged great, long lasting friendships along the way. I am not a misanthrope. Just a bit of a loner - definitely not a social animal (even though I married one.)

Anyway, to make a long story short, one of my resolutions with this new move is to try and be more social. I know I will always need a lot of silence, lots of time alone. This is who I am, and there is no changing that. But I also know that I sometimes suffer from being too isolated, and this is compounded by the fact that my work requires me to be at home, writing. I need to find a balance between the translating, the writing, and the need to get out a bit, see people, exercise, join in some social activity.

And where am I going with all this heart pouring? Well, I had a belated epiphany, yesterday. If I am to meet my new resolution, I'll need to be extremely focused, mindful, and most of all, I need to learn a few skills. How can a woman approaching fifty, someone who's lived in seven countries and counting, who speaks three languages fluently and can fend for herself in a few others, find it so difficult to juggle meeting and talking to two different, unknown people at the same time? How is it that this person can find herself in a group, and feel her mind literally freeze?

I was discussing this with my husband, yesterday, after we met a lady at one of the clubs in town (I will have to write a post about the club culture in Dhaka, by the way). She knew the couple we were sitting with, and joined us, and started talking with me, but did not acknowledge my husband. He thought she was being superior, maybe even racist. And I just know, deep in my bones, that she was shy, and not very skilled at meeting several people at once. Just a few hours before, I had made exactly the same mistake. I saw a lady that I ran into a few days ago, said hello and thanked her because she had given me the phone number of a taylor; I asked for her name, which I didn't know, but forgot to tell her mine, and totally ignored the lady who was sitting with her. I shudder in retrospect and wish I could turn the clock, but the fact is, I did not introduce myself to her, nor did I include her in the small conversation. Why? I forgot. I mean, I never even thought about it. It is as if the mere act of walking up to someone I don't know to strike up a conversation demands so much energy from me, I loose all ability to do anything else. If that makes any sense. And I'm writing this in case someone else out there suffers from the same kind of mental paralysis, and they happen to read this some day. I want them to know they are not alone.

That said, I firmly believe that we can all improve ourselves up until our very last breath. I also believe that once clearly aware of a problem, the work is half done. So, I hereby pronounce myself ready to dedicate myself to improving my social skills... Insh'Allah, as they say here.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Unconsciously looking for something familiar... and finding it.

We signed our lease contract yesterday. It's official, we are no longer homeless. Of course, the apartment is yet to be emptied of its content, but the previous tenant has left, and it's a matter of days, two weeks at the most, before we move into our new home. Let us not dwell on the fact that our shipment has yet to leave Mumbai, and we may well have to camp out until our effects reach us. At least, we have a place.

The apartment on the floor below, identical, just slightly darker, was also rented at the same time, and we took the opportunity that workers were cleaning, painting, and polishing the floors to go and take measurements for curtains, blinds, and such. I took lots of pictures so I can start thinking about how I want to organize and decorate it, and I was standing on the balcony, looking at the small, narrow patch of green below when a thought struck me. For the third time, we will have a traveler's tree in our front garden. The two last times, in Nigeria, and in India, we lived in a private house, but what were the odds that we'd have a traveler's tree in an apartment building?

Call me crazy, but I consider it a sign of continuity. This is not, after all, just some old tropical tree. It's called a traveler's tree because its stem can be cut and offer water to the thirsty traveler. In our case, and as I admired our new companion (above), I started thinking that the traveler's tree is there to give us a sense of continuity, something familiar and comfortable to look at. And it's beautiful, too.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Robin Pascoe Online Lecture Series

It seems fitting that one of my first posts from our new country should be about Expat Expert Robin Pascoe, and the subject of expatriation.

Those who read my blog know that I'm a great fan of Robin. I was lucky to meet her when she toured India (link to interview) and loved her no-nonsense, practical, humorous and yet very empathetic approach to all the issues that expats encounter when moving and living abroad. Her whole philosophy comes down to a simple evidence : It is a privilege to live abroad. But it doesn't mean that there are no challenges, and these challenges need to be acknowledged and feelings about them need to be expressed. Without ever losing sight of the fact that is is a privilege to be living abroad. Et la boucle est bouclée, as we say in French. The cycle is complete.

Robin is now launching an online lecture series on her website. This is the next best thing after being able to attend her lectures live - which may no longer be an option, as I think she's decided to slow down on all the traveling. Besides, you can access it anytime from the comfort of your own home. It is an excellent introduction to her books, and the many themes and issues developed in them (marriage, identity problems, third culture kids, global nomads and the challenges they face, how we can best help them, repatriation, etc.) And the video medium offers the added bonus of seeing and hearing Robin talk about the things she knows so well, with that voice, and particular brand of wit that I like so much.