One of the most exciting and enjoyable aspects of the Families in Global Transition Conference this past weekend was the way in which personal narrative – both written and spoken – was taken as an essential part of processing the expat experience. I’ve written about personal narrative before and in The Expat Activity Book I even provide an exercise on using one’s story as an insight tool, but there was something incredibly moving about being surrounded by people for whom the process of transitioning one’s story from the heart to the page was seen as a given.
One of the most memorable moments of the conference for me was when I attended the Writing Your Way Home: Capturing a Sense of Place session led by expat writer Nina Sichel and Tales from a Small Planet Literary Editor Patricia Linderman.
During the session we were prompted to write about a place that we had called home. The clock had already started ticking when I scribbled “Tana Kitchen,” down in my notebook.
As I began to transport myself back to the kitchen in our house in Antananarivo, I couldn’t believe how quickly the memories started coming and how emotionally charged the process of writing about it even for just five minutes became. It was impossible to hold back tears. Our kitchen had been my entry into every single day of my life in Madagascar. And the experience of mentally and emotionally revisiting that space holds important keys for me even now.
As I’ve taken more time since the conference to write about my Tana kitchen, I’ve come to realize that I want the process of discovery through story telling to be accessible to every expat. Moreover, I like the idea of supporting people through that process. As a coach, it is something I want to increasingly make a part of my practice.
So, what about you? Do you have a place that moved you…or moves you still? If you revisited it in writing, would it give you new insight, growth or perspective?
I encourage you to give it a try. Close your eyes. What do you see, hear, smell, taste and feel? What do you come to know about yourself and your experience when you go there?
And for now, let me invite you into My Tana Kitchen.
The first place I stepped into upon our arrival “home” to Madagascar was that kitchen.
I can close my eyes now and feel my feet that first jet-lagged morning stepping from the hardwood floor of the entryway onto the tiny, grey, perpetually dusty, black grouted tiles of that kitchen. The floor was always so smooth, but really, no matter how much
we Lalaina cleaned it, always had that layer of dust.
But not the red dust that settled everywhere else, this was a grey, speckley dust. Maybe it was dehydrated mold. Is that possible? Mold was always an issue in that kitchen.
We had so much light in our Tana kitchen. An entire wall of windows and then, nestled with just enough space between our ridiculous American fridge filled with French things and vegetables and UHT milk in boxes, and the old sideboard, was a big French door with a view to our hulking, green generator, some pavement, a 10-foot, red adobe wall and the mango tree.
And we’d always want to leave that door open even though the screen had lots of holes and mosquitos would sneak their way in through them. We’d want to leave it open because that’s where you’d watch the rain roll in. And that’s where Lalaina would sit and close her eyes in the afternoon and rest, but never nap. And when the rain would finally shift from rumbling to falling, you’d want to wait as long as possible to close up the door because the breeze through the curtains and the musty, wild smell of the rain felt so good. But then the dusty tile would start to get wet and slippery and you’d finally give in.
Those ugly pink curtains will never leave my mind. Who chooses the curtains in these houses? So much pink…accented with gold. Why? I guess I think maybe the thought was that a woman would be spending lots of time there. And she’d like pink. Funny. And the salmon-colored tile of the countertops…impossible to roll out a pie crust there. Pie crust? Hm…maybe I am the woman they thought might be spending a lot of time in there.
And then there was that big oak sideboard. You know, I kind of liked it. It was the old-school Embassy stuff. The stuff that’s so old that it’s now retro and kind of nice and quirky. Not like the new old stuff from the 80’s that is now, quite simply, just old. Anyway, the top drawer, where we kept all of our Ikea forks and knives and spoons and the tea ball that I move from home to home and never use, was broken. So every time you would open it, it would fall out. Swish, Dunk, Ting! Swish, Dunk, Ting! It saved our toes though. It never fell out all the way. Of course, this was unlike the stools.
Three very heavy, pale-oak-colored Malagasy stools perpetually took up more space than necessary in that kitchen. Utilitarian. And heavy. I’m not kidding here. I mean, really heavy. In our first few weeks one fell on Sam’s toe and he lost his toenail. And my shins were banged up for almost two whole years of running into them as I rounded the corner and, for some reason, forgot that they would be there. And they always made this deep, low screeching sound as they slid across that slightly dirty floor. We were always scooting them around because they were always in the way. And yet we never got rid of them. Utilitarian. They were useful. For sitting on to rest without napping and for teetering upon to get a glass from the high shelf.
From that kitchen, every little corner of that strange house was accessible. If not by sight, then by sound, I knew where everyone was.
In the morning, I would watch as the guards made their way around the house, inspecting things like the pathways of lizards, the stealing of mangos from the part of our tree that hung over the street and the breaking down (once again) of the generator. And I could hear parties from next door. And the clarinet sounds that would blow through our 30-foot jacaranda trees as our musically gifted neighbor filled his free time with song. When friends would come over I could see them asking the guard for entry. "Madame Amy est ici, Madame." Madame Lourdes. Madame Lisa. And on and on.
And then in the evening, as the children bathed and did homework and I cooked yet another meal from the small list of ingredients to which we ever had access and the chirping of birds gave-way to the creaks of nighttime insects, I’d hear the front gate squeak and “Bonsoir Monsieur,” meant my single-parent day had ended and my back-up was there to
embrace save me. All from that kitchen.
That kitchen let us in and let us out. Each morning I would open the metal-latched, heavy wooden, pink-curtained window above the sink. Click. Thudunk. And all of these things would come into my life. And the day would be good because it was consistent and peaceful and nature would be right at the very edge of our shelter…and sometimes even come right in. And then each night, as we prepared to settle down under mosquito netting, we would ask the world to wait safely outside. Thudunk. Click. Locked back up again. The sun would come up and then again it would start all over. One day after the next.
And even though we’re gone now from that home, I realize we’re always surrounded by these bookends. Click. Thudunk. Thudunk. Click. We arrive. We stay. We leave. It’s the life. And while it might be hard sometimes, all this coming and going, it’s packaged nicely when you think about it. There’s one side. Then there’s the next. And oh, how nice, all that stuff in the middle.