So long, and thanks for all the sour cream

“You’ll get bored,” she’d said to me, with such certainty that I wondered if it might be true. ‘She’ was my boss, and they were her parting words as I walked out of my office, family photos from my desk and farewell card stashed in my bag, three years in a country I couldn’t even locate on a map stretching out ahead of me.

“Learn Polish, do yoga and give dinner parties,” was my standard response when people asked what I would do. But it was a glib non-answer. The truth was, I had no idea what I’d do in Poland. Have a few months off, do a bit of traveling. But what then? I didn’t know anyone who didn’t work. What did they do?

Was she right? Would I get bored?

Now, somehow, I’m on the other side. Another office, another boss, and having plenty of those, “did that all really happen or was it a dream?” moments. And with it all behind me, it seems like a good time to review my performance.

Number One: Did I learn Polish?

Are you in-freaking-sane??? I only had three years.

But I did come to understand something about my (temporarily) adopted land and its people — who, I’ve decided, are hard to like but hard not to love. The girl in my local shop who’d growl at me as she (grudgingly) handed over a purchase, having exhausted all the options except to sell me what I came in for? First category. The stooped, wrinkled 96 year old lady who I was helping to a friend’s apartment — on the sixth floor. “The lift’s broken, we’ll have to take the stairs,” I joked (OK, a bit lamely). ‘We will do what needs to be done,’ she simply replied, heading for the stairwell. She was in the second.

Mark: Six out of 10. Mainly for effort.

Two: Did I do yoga?

I have a theory that expat years are like dog years. Each one is worth seven normal human years. It’s the only way I can explain what I’ve managed to get up to over the last three years.

I wrote about a lot of my exploits on my blog. Like combing the Polish countryside for traces of UFOs, visiting the world’s biggest Jesus, and heading to the German border in search of trainspotters.

There are lots more I didn’t write about. Like how it felt to not be working, when all of a sudden “why-didn’t-you-pick-up-the-dry-cleaning-you-had-all-day” was an OK thing for my husband to say to me, and “oh, I didn’t realise you were only a wife” was an OK way to (abruptly) end a conversation. Or how many times I just managed to hold back the tears as — once again — I tried to do something simple that I had once been capable of (like picking up a parcel from the post office or paying a bill) but I couldn’t, because I no longer had the power of speech. I’ll save those for the book.

Did I do yoga? Yes. On a camel safari with a Polish tour group to Tunisia. How else would you do it?

Mark: Nine out of ten. I never got to Szczecin, home to the only albino kangaroo in Poland. I’m saving it for next time.

Three: Did I give dinner parties?

Did I what. But what I never imagined was that I’d meet so many amazing, friendly, interesting people I’d want to share my evenings (and rudimentary culinary skills) with. Although, that wasn’t a given. A few months in, trying to find common ground with a never ending procession of strangers had definitely become a chore. With winter approaching, all I wanted to do was wrap myself under the doona and not come out till the spring thaw.

I voiced a nagging concern to my husband. “Why am I bothering to meet all these people I’m just going to leave in three years?” “Treat people like they’re going to be your friends for three years, and they probably will be. Treat people like you’re going to be friends forever, and they might,” he replied.  Good advice. Not to mention a good reminder me of why I married him.

Mark: Ten out of ten. With an elephant stamp.

Did I get bored?

Since I’ve got an hour on my Transperth bus in the morning traffic these days, I have some time to ponder this. As well as other things. Like how, now I’m on the other side, being back feels strange just as often as being away, and I find myself wandering the supermarket aisles, unable to believe how perfect the fruit and veg is. Every onion is a flawless thing of beauty. Every potato is pristine. Yet, we seem to survive with only four kinds of sour cream. How is it possible to have so many perfect tubers and so little sour milk?

Most of all, everyone’s happy. I mean, everyone. All the time. I’m reminded of a post-card I saw before the Sydney Olympics: “Smile! Our Olympic visitors must suspect nothing!” Are they all on happy pills? I find myself asking. Or could it be all the perfect onions?

Or perhaps, compared to Polish sales assistants, everyone just seems pretty happy?

So, did I get bored?

I log onto my computer at 8.30 am sharp and prepare for another eight hours in my open plan office. I re-arrange some family photos on my desk while my computer whirrs into life. My desktop background flashes up. A photo of me on an Odessa beach, on a road trip to the Ukraine.

Mark: Fail. Did not try.

After three years of not working, this old-but-new normality offers a reassurance and novelty value that hasn’t worn off yet. I suspect it will. Ditto the hour-long commute. And then, I guess, I’ll be bored.

I hope so. After the last three years, I’m quite looking forward to it.

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