Sunday, March 02, 2008

Life at Zero

Yesterday I listened to an episode of This American Life entitled Testosterone. One of the segments was called "Life at Zero." It was about this guy whose body, due to a medical condition, quit producing testosterone. The story is pretty good, and I encourage everyone to go there now and listen to the episode - but read this post first. There's also an interview with a female-to-male "person of transgender experience" (i.e. a male trannie). And a woman talking to her fifteen-year-old son about dating and girls and teenage stuff. But my point is...

The title, "Life at Zero" reminded me of a student of mine. My student, Maria, moved here four weeks ago when her husband was transferred to Amsterdam to work at a very Dutch company. The one "friend" she has is the wife of a colleague of her husband, and they're not even that close. She had friends in from her home town last week, but that's always just a reprieve from the solitude.

Moving to a new country where you don't speak the language could probably always be the stuff of a story entitled "Life at Zero." As I talk to her, it takes me back to moving here and not knowing anyone and only knowing a smattering of Dutch. She speaks no Dutch and only a little English. Geez. I can't imagine having had it that bad.

It's such a strange experience. No friends, no job, no connections. It's just you and your partner and your wits. What do you do with your day? These days I can always find something do to. I have the Internet and I have things I'm preparing for. I have my choir, my knitting group and my writers group. But when I first got here, we didn't even have an Internet connection at home and I wasn't involved in anything. You can only walk around a city and shop for so long before you just need to talk to someone, tell them about your day.

Fortunately, Maria immediately signed up for English classes. When she walks in, all the women in the office say, "Hi, Maria. How are you?" And she does her best to talk about what's going on for a few minutes until we go into a room and have a lesson for two and a half hours. It's an incredibly trying lesson for me. She looks up words in her little dictionary and I try to explain things I've mistakenly said like, "These exercises give you a little more wiggle room. There's not just one right answer...What does wiggle room mean? Oh."

It's also, at this point, sometimes explaining things like not pronouncing the 'w' in answer and the 't' in listen. But my point is that while it's a tiring lesson, sometimes doling out one word at a time, or writing what I'm trying to say on the board, I know it's really important for her to have someone to talk to. The therapist in me comes out. She's cute as a button and always has a story about trying to get something done, like talking to a person in a shop and trying to find dish washing liquid (because the word for that here is afwasmiddel) by saying, "Soap to wash the plates." She's getting the job done.

It's such an incredibly lonely time. While you don't have "zero" exactly (a good partner counts for a lot in these situations - and it's tiring for them), you have almost zero. You're completely dependant on yourself for getting things done throughout the day.

Thank God for my choir and for my volunteer work that I got involved in very soon after my arrival. It saved my sanity - and Fred's. Maria and I are going to look for some volunteer work for her. I'm going to appeal to the hearts of these volunteer coordinators and find her somewhere where she can walk in once a week and have a place and everyone will say, "Hi, Maria. How are you?" And then she'll feel at home here in this strange and wonderful country.


Anonymous said...

Seems to me that 'soap to wash the plates' is a pretty good description of washing-up liquid (or, indeed, afwasmiddel!)

Good luck to Maria, say I.


Littlelou said...

I moved to a new town 2yrs ago this week. It was not a big move geographically, I was still in the same county but having moved from the friendly, secure village I had grown up in it was a big move for me. I knew no one apart from my fiance but after finding volunteer work at the hospital and attending swim group with a friendly neighbour I found my feet. I hope like you I will go onto help someone else in my situation.