My first-grader recently asked me to teach him to play Scrabble. It devolved mostly into me playing against myself, which was satisfying in its own way. I played Words with Friends on my iPhone when the boys were itty bitty, to engage my brain between burping and butt-wiping. I learned some excellent tricks and strategies from my uncle in those days. My Words era had to come to an end when I became obsessed with beating him and spent more time Googling “Scrabble words” than engaging with my toddlers. It was time to move on.
Now I am able to enjoy such activities as Uninterrupted Talking with Grown-Ups Over Coffee in Real Life. This week a friend hosted some of us who speak English as our first language to do just that. One topic that comes up again and again is how frustrating it is to be limited by language. How embarrassing it is to be singled out as the person who doesn’t understand. How humbling it is to speak with a limited vocabulary, much like a toddler, when you’re an educated and thoughtful person.
Mostly, we speak of how disappointing it is that the limits of our language limit the pool of people to get to know.
This isn’t a complaint. It’s simply how it is. I put forth some effort to learn my host-country language, but not enough, and now I’m stuck talking about the weather and my children with moms at the bus stop. Fortunately I’ve connected with a local club of English-speaking women, where I got back to running and have started a writing group. I’d be nowhere without them; the potential friend pool would be more like a tiny puddle.
But there’s still that feeling of being Other. Even if I commit to improving my Italian in my last 8 months here (and I won’t because there are so many other things to do!), I still won’t be able to achieve the proficiency required to meet a new friend and have conversations about, say, finding purpose in life. There’s just no more time.
So. We find a rhythm that works for us in our short time as temporary expat moms of small children, fitting in coffees and excursions around school schedules and birthday parties. We build friendships with the people around us, a community within the community. And we wait for what’s next.