Tuesday, June 2, 2009

First person personal

Well, today I got a great email from a perfect stranger and a new friend, LC who hails from a place in Belgium that's too small to name. (And if you're wondering where in heck that might be, all I can say is, take out your map of Belgium and your magnifying glass, my friend, and get cracking.)

LC wrote a lovely letter, commiserating on my difficulties in South Africa, and telling me she enjoyed my writing,

I am a South African (please don't let that stop you reading) living in Belgium. I came across your blog a few weeks ago and was transfixed and horrified by your experiences in SA. You made me laugh and cry - the memories, the accents, the funny sayings and your wonderful style of writing. I read all about the SA and Poland experiences and often wondered about the time in between. The gaps made me ache for you and made me so sad for my beautiful country. I left many years ago to go to London where I married a Brit but my heart keeps straying back.

I lived in Natal (in the foothills of the Drakensberg), we holidayed in wild places on the coast and my sister lived in Cape Town where I also spent part of my holidays. I do so hope you went to some of those places as they are so utterly beautiful. I know you went on safaris and to Namibia which I am glad about (although I have done neither!).

I never lived in Jo'burg either and have no desire to. I know there is horrific crime throughout the country and am not sure I would like to live there again, even though I still have family there. By the way, a relative of mine was married to Alan Paton who wrote "Cry, the Beloved Country" - oh how sad he would be to see it now, albeit with roles reversed.

And then she said this:

I notice you still retain "expateek" and refer to yourself in the third person, which I think I remember you saying was a way of detaching yourself from the "you" of JHB and which was so understandable. I hope you don't mind me asking why you haven't reverted to the first person and that I much preferred your way of writing back then. Felt closer to you then, but perhaps that is the reasoning behind the idea!

So perceptive, LC!

I wrote back:

What a wonderful letter!

It's not often that people weigh in ... even comments are hard to come by, and so often I wonder if anyone's really reading. Actually, the little widget-counter things let you know about some activity, but it's really hard to tell whether people are reading or just clicking through. I did notice you, tho... in fact was wondering again today who you were, because it seemed like you must have read through the whole blog from beginning to end. I was impressed by your ability to sit still for so long!

I still love South Africa. It is such a beautiful country, and when I really think back on it and remember... the hot dry air in Jozi, the flowering trees all over, all the people walking in the dust, the hawkers, the cool of the patios in the restaurants, the Afrikaans section of the bookstores.... It makes me weirdly homesick for a place I hardly stayed long enough to call home.

I'm still sorry, in some ways, that I spent most of the second year in London, but I was going through a mess of a time and was terrified in Jo'burg after the robbery. My husband and I were also going through a dreadful bit. I just hated him, as I'd not wanted to go to SA in the first place, and the build-up of resentment of move after move after move had poisoned my point of view.

He also traveled a lot while in SA, and worked impossible hours, so I was on my own a lot. And by a lot, I mean a lot. It meant locking myself in, evenings, behind the trellie doors to the bedroom, waiting to hear the gnnrrr of the outside gates and the bip bip bip of the alarm deactivation, which meant that he was home, and that there were now two of us to listen for housebreakers. Lovely.

I had some very nice friends in Jozi, and something of a social life, but mostly I just wanted to be back in London (the prior posting) with my old friends there, living my life as it had been before SA.

Also, having live in help (Oscar and Towela) drove me insane. I like being by myself, rather a lot, having quiet time to read or write... after 25+ years of non-stop childrearing I feel I deserve some down-time. But I'm terrible with boundaries, and I felt like I'd gotten my kids out of the house, finally, and then had adopted two more needy and somewhat child-like dependents.

Forgive me if that sounds horrible, but I just didn't know how to set limits, and suffered from my stupidity as a result. I think Saffers are a lot better at managing that relationship stuff with maids/household help, having done it their whole lives. For me, it was an irritating mystery, and I found myself driving Oscar around, like downtown to the Home Office by Jeppe St, where it's super easy to get hijacked or shot, for example, and wondering what in the hell I was doing.

The truly weird thing was, that once I was back in London (ostensibly to be closer to my daughters) I was working full time and sort of "single-ish" -- i.e., neither exactly "married" nor "unmarried" in other people's eyes, so no one knew what to make of me. "Is she getting divorced? Is she after my husband? What's she doing? Well, there's just one of her, so I won't have her to dinner, it'll make the table uneven.... and besides, she works most evenings anyway." So I ended up slaving away in a dismal rainy country with a very different life than I'd had a year and a half previously. It was pretty odd. I somewhat enjoyed my work (teaching Pilates, which I'd started training to do in Jozi) but worked for someone who wasn't very ethical or intelligent, so that took some of the fun away too.

I finally realised, when my husband invited me to go with him on a trip he was going on to Thailand, from SA, in May 2007, that I was going to be missing out on the times-to-come that we had both worked so hard for. As if, just when things might perhaps get easier and more fun (more travel, more time to enjoy each other again without kids to worry about so much), that I was about to throw it all away in a fit of stubborn, hysterical, post-traumatic pique.

So I went with him to Thailand and had a lovely time, then went to visit him in Poland once he moved there (early August). I spent the whole visit, practically, in bed. (Not like that!) No, just utterly and completely exhausted and could hardly lift my head for a cup of tea. I lay in bed, listening to Chopin and looking out the second story window at the willow branches swaying gently outside, and thought... "what in the feck have I done with my life?" By the end of the weekend, I'd decided to join him in Poland, and went back to London to tie up loose ends and give notice on my flat. What a relief!

Needless to say, there wasn't a lot of time to write that year in London, and honestly, I was SO depressed, it would have just been a misery to read. I wept buckets. Honestly, could never wear any eye makeup because my eyes were teary and red most of the time. My life felt like such a disaster and I just couldn't figure out what to do. When my head finally cleared, in August, in Poland, I could start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Guess that's what PTSD or whatever you call it will do to you.

I literally felt like an entirely other person for about a year and a half.

It's really interesting that you mention the 1st person/3rd person thing. I've really been struggling with this. I wonder if it's related to that "not myself" kind of feeling as well. Sometimes I find the construct cloying and irritating... I think I "caught it" from IAMBOSSY and Derfwad Manor (Mrs. G) and have thought often about how to give it up. I think it's kind of a self-protective mechanism, a way of being funny without revealing too much of myself. But it does keep people at a distance as well.

To be honest, you've hit the nail on the head, and I'm actually sick of writing that way. It also doesn't really fit somehow with being back in America (besides the whole expat/expateek business which obviously doesn't exactly apply any more). Perhaps part of it too is the whole unresolved anger at the way we were treated by the French corporation, and giving myself permission to virtually torture "management" with no internet trail....

Thank you for saying you liked the old style better. I have wondered about this, and it's so interesting to get outside input. Any suggestions about how to effect the change (back to my real self?)...

And, readers Reader? Any thoughts?

I'm feeling very naked here, in my first person persona.

Don't leave me standing here all alone...



Anna said...

You know what? I STILL can't bring myself to read your ZA stuff. I hate Jo'burg so much that my groin hurts. Pretoria is OK, and Natal (or whatever they call it these days) is mighty fine and I miss it like crazy, but Jo'burg can implode on itself and die. There, I finally got it off my chest.

And yes, I think you should write in the first person. :)

expateek said...

Thanks, Anna. Thanks for ALL of that. I feel like a split personality at the moment... hopefully the pieces will come together, ...tomorrow?

Oddly, I guess I really haven't dealt with with all of this. Funny to put it out there, and have it feel so raw.

Hannah Rose said...

funny, I wish I could go live in South Africa and marry a South African and study all about that wacky country's intense and interesting history.

call me an idealistic youth... or a soon-to-be graduate without any options...

Amy said...

This was a great post - thanks for sharing! The old PTS thing is a bugger. I had a rather unpleasant experience - nothing to compare with what happened to you - but still very distressing, almost exactly two years ago. Really messed me up. Triggered OCD symptoms, ended up under the hospital having CBT. But, you know, it does get better. And after about 18 months of feeling, yes, like a different person, the old me started to reassert itself. But I'm always going to have negative associations with places and people from around that time. I think that's natural and normal. I'm not surprised you had such a hard time in London, and can completely understand why you didn't want to write much.

So, the third person thing? Well, I don't mind either way. I enjoy both your styles of writing. Do what you're most comfortable with. Might be worth remaining relatively anonymous though, especially if you wish to continue to torture le French boss (hope so!!!). He he! x

expateek said...

Hannah Rose -- I think I may have to block you from commenting. Anxiety levels for me going up yet? Yesssssssssss. :-)

Amy -- thanks for your comment. It is so strange to go through this kind of experience. You keep thinking, "I'm okay. I'm perfectly fine..." And it's only much later that you realise that you totally WERE NOT fine.

It was only when my sister and I were talking on the phone one day, about 15 months after the attack, and she said, "You sound like yourself again! I feel like I have my sister back!" that I noticed how bizarrely self-alienated I'd been. It's been a long haul, but I'm finally really happy again. Which is so very nice.

Ailurophile said...

I relate to South Africa purely owing to the wildlife there. Never been there but heard of the violent crime and other troubles there. Like much of Africa I suppose SA too offers glimpses of beauty and savagery. Sorry to hear about your not-so-positive experiences there. Wishing the best to you, and all of Africa.

Christine said...

You write spectacular in the first person and it is true, I feel like I am meeting the real you for the first time. Wow! You have gone through a lot. Have you ever thought of writing a book?

Don't get me wrong, I do love Expateek and would miss her and her crazy owl if she were to disappear entirely. Maybe she could come out and play occasionally. She has given me the gift of laughter when I need it so much. Few people have that talent. Sometimes the only way we get through all the crap that we have to is to laugh.

Red Shoes said...

First of all, I read your blog regularly, and often forget how appreciated comments can be. Will try to comment more frequently.

Second, I entirely, entirely understand the despair and necessary denial that comes from PTSD, as I have dealt with some horrific life experiences myself (living in post-Katrina New Orleans being one of them) and understand how you can create wonderfully useful techniques for dealing with it... The trick is to deciding when they are no longer useful or necessary.

If you write as yourself, you will not be alone. If you choose not to, we will still be here. Don't agonize too much over it, just do what feels ok and safe and natural. We will support you.

expateek said...

Ailurophile -- hello and welcome, and what an interesting blog you have! Yes, the wildlife in SA was amazing. Probably I should have hung out more with animals and a bit less with people? Would have perhaps been safer!

Christine -- thanks. Yes, I think I'll bring expateek out for high holidays and such... but it does feel really different to write "the old way". Nice, in fact. Glad I can make you laugh. As you put it, sometimes laughter is all we've got.

Red Shoes -- A big thank you to you as well. I like the idea about keeping coping mechanisms around until they are "no longer useful or necessary". I hadn't quite thought about it that way, but that's a lovely angle: accepting that one will have some perhaps odd idiosyncrasies for a while. I like it!

Kacie said...

I am a fairly new reader and I must say that I prefer 1st person! It makes it feel more personal, which is of course why it is more intimidating to write in.

You know - I think that moving and transition is often quite a bit more traumatic than people usually act like. Not that is HAS to be traumatic, but it often is. As the child of an expat, it has sort of defined my life.

Sooz said...

See? You DO have more than one reader!
Well, my dear, I am so glad you posted the afore-mentioned post and your post in reply: it even made ME breathe a sigh of relief for you.
Happy to read ANYthing you write, but I do like your First Person You a lot. :o)

expateek said...

Kacie -- hi and welcome to a fellow ex-expat! Yes, moving weighs in as a life-stressor right after death and divorce -- and of course I'm sure you've heard that a jillion times too.

It's interesting. I looked back through and discovered that I've only been consistently writing as "expateek" since I started ripping on the French corporation. My extremely clever disguise so that my husband won't be fired for having a lunatic wife. Seeing as how we've (mostly) worked through all that, it's probably time to let expateek rest a bit. We'll just bring her out to highlight any new corporate atrocities. And now I'm noticing that "we" thing going on again. Boy, consistency is a bugger!

Sooz -- Thanks, GF! You have been there through thick and thin, and I really appreciate it. Without you and a few others, I'm not sure I'd still be here. I owe you a huge debt of gratitude. xxx

Red Shoes said...

Forget consistency. Consistency is only important in cake batter and sauces.

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