I went to lunch.
I didn’t know what to wear so left the bathroom festooned with tried-ons-and-discarded, the shower head wearing a flung t’shirt, the bath draped in a badshoppingday dress and trousers trampled into the floor. I arrived and felt I’d got it all wrong anyway.
My hostess was lovely, the food to die for, the ladies were kind and as lunch developed I watched them engaged in uproarious fun; the in-jokes, the familiar names; a shared history, easy, effortless, and wished I could join in, like the new girl at school, tentatively, longingly gazing into a playground that’s all Go except for her. You want to nudge her out but she’s afraid to go lest she make a wrong and forever alienating move.
I sat like a rabbit-in-the-headlights. In my wrong clothes without the right conversation. It’s such a long time since I’ve been the Newbie that I have forgotten how. I don’t have anybody’s lifemap and they don’t have mine and so the conversation skims the surface, I’m hopeless at small-talk; it never unpicks a personality or unravels a story to satisfactory conclusion. Like going to a meal and coming home feeling less than satiated. Worrying about the choices you’d made, the things you said, the outfit you wore, hating that one lady gazed over your shoulder as you spoke in search of somebody who’d be less hard work to to talk to just because you never have to try as hard with old faces as new ones …
I’ve never been new in an expat community; I’ve drifted seamlessly from one bit of East Africa to another, where between mine and Ant’s families, we’ve trodden a familiar history for over a hundred years. This bit’s different though. This bit of slightly-southern Africa.
How long have you been here?
Um. Bout three weeks …?
And how long are you staying?
I don’t know? A year? Five? Ten? Forever? I don’t know how to be a real expat; I’ve herded my little tribe here, a nomad, in search of greener pastures. This is home now. This new place is where all our energies will concentrate without any consideration of What Next? The Here And Now is how Ant and I have always lived.
I ask Ant later, as I sniff pathetically into my glass of wine, feeling sorry for my friendless self, ‘do you find it hard, being new?’. Of course I do. Do you worry about what to say? Of course I do? Do you ask questions? (Worrying I hadn’t asked enough/the right kind/had asked too many, as I am prone to do ever since my darling mum urged me that the way to fend off social anxiety born of debilitating shyness, was to ‘ask questions; everybody loves talking about themselves’. ). Of course I do, says Ant. What do you ask, then, I want to know, ‘ I ask, do you have any children?’. He pauses, ‘yes?’ I say, encouraging him on, ‘and if they say no, I ask if they’re still a virgin.’
Perhaps I’ll try that next time then?