Living in a house full of people has it’s joys and it’s woes. We have a big beautiful home with a balcony overlooking the Mekong, our own cook and cleaner and a very comfortable home life. A joy! We each have our own ensuite bathroom – another joy. Except for the poor soul who happened to look up one morning to a pair of peeping eyes (belonging to an overnight visitor) looking down on her naked body through the vent leading into the ensuite next door – that was a definite woe! In my year here we have had many interesting colleagues visit from Phnom Penh, Australia, USA, Japan and France – mostly a joy. Except for the aforementioned peeping tom and the time a (very nice) manager arrived from Tokyo to inform me that five of my team of 14 were about to lose their jobs – an obvious woe. A house full of certain friends from all over the world – that’s mainly been a joy. Except the times when it was more of a woe. But thankfully those times have been few and far between in the big scheme of things. I have been exposed to a previously unfamiliar condition, the “European Princess Syndrome”. EPS is a woe of mild to magnificent proportions, magnified to sanity-threatening levels if the offender is not very pleasant. But mostly I have experienced rapport and solidarity with like-minded souls who have become solid, lifetime friends with many great shared memories.
When I was interviewed at the MSF Office in Sydney sixteen months ago my interviewer told me that the dynamic within the expatriate team either makes or breaks the experience of any mission, as these are the people whose pockets we are forced to live in, the upshot being a “warts and all” relationship, often with little breathing space. At the time it went through my mind that this would not be the case for me because it would matter far more to me, to enjoy the work and have a “cultural experience”, and that any “expat effect” would be insignificant to me. How wrong I was! Thankfully the living situation here has been far easier than many MSF missions. But at times during the past year my sanity has definitely been threatened – due to unpleasant EPS. But thankfully, in the main, the expatriates living and working with me have been more compatible than I could have ever hoped for. Which is definitely the main reason that I am returning home with cherished, positive, happy memories of a most amazing year.
Some time ago Bea lost a bunch of clothes which went missing after she put them into the laundry load for our cleaner. I assured her that occasionally things go missing but they ultimately reappear. Some months later her four or five clothing items remained missing and so we approached the responsible English speaking representative, who contacted the cleaner to enquire about the missing clothes. That night her clothes were hanging on the communal clothes rack, looking like they’d returned from a long holiday all refreshed and crisp! Without language skills to say more than a passing hello to the cleaner, we have never found out where they went and so it may remain a permanent mystery.
Marty, our much-loved boss and housemate who is departing tomorrow for pastures new, had told us about a beautiful riverside village that he knows well. So this morning we went out on our bicycles to explore this area and I decided to wear my pink thongs. But when I looked for them on the communal shoe rack they were nowhere to be found. I mentioned this to Bea while we were out and she laughingly told me that at one of the other houses, our Cambodian colleagues wear her shoes around the house. Oneday recently she looked down at her assistant’s feet and he was standing there in her Birkenstocks! We were chuckling at this as we bounced along a pothole-ridden mud-soaked country road when Marty appeared cycling towards us, returning from an overnight stay with friends in the village. We stopped for a chat and he confirmed our route before we continued in our opposite directions.
It was a beautiful bike ride to a very attractive village with an interesting pagoda complex, neat and pretty gardens and plenty of charming rural scenes. With mud and puddles everywhere the polite but lawless traffic was even more disorderly than usual as vehicles veered to the wrong side of the road to avoid being bogged. We cycled in a swerving pattern depending on what others were doing and despite cycling past cars, trucks, mini vans, motos and all manner of other larger vehicles passing us on very sloshy ground, not once were we spattered with mud as everyone slowed to a snail’s pace, often smiling or calling out “hello” as our paths crossed.
We made it home safely and when I walked through the door I flipped my shoes onto the shoe rack, to the vision of my missing pink thongs. With everyone else away for the weekend, it was apparent that Marty had taken them for an overnight excursion to the village and he must have been wearing them when we chanced upon him during our conversation about the alien habit of wearing other people’s shoes!
With the rainy season comes the risk of accidents, which are minimised despite the lawlessness on the road, thanks to the collective courtesy I’ve mentioned. On Tuesday I pulled into the office on my bicycle as our affable cleaner was standing near the parking area. She shouted happily to me “Helen! Soksabay te?!”. I braked in my parking spot, put my right foot onto the ground and before I could reply to her, my foot slid across a patch of mould on the concrete, my body followed, and I toppled to the ground with my bicycle landing on top of me. Unhurt I replied immediately with “Ot soksabay te!” (No! I’m not well!). I was laughingly hauled off the ground amidst lots of chatter and hilarity, feeling slightly humiliated by my oafishness as the watchman appeared with a shovel to scrape the mould off the concrete.
That evening the household were meeting out for dinner and I arrived at the restaurant first. I sat down before realising that the standing fan was not blowing in the right direction. I stood up and walked around the back of my chair to move it, unaware that the pot plant beside me had just been sprayed with water which had settled on the floor tiles. My foot slid out from under me on the slippery floor and I landed on my right knee on the tile. The waitress rushed to my aid and as she asked “are you okay?” my knee slid out from under my hip, and the floor tile rose to smack me in the face. Lying face down on the floor I replied “yes” before clumsily lumbering myself up and moving my humiliated body back to my chair, as the waitress moved the fan into place before mopping the floor dry.
The next day I was cycling to work when, as often happens, another bicycle came around the corner towards me, on the wrong side of the road. Looking at the teenage boy pedaling towards me, some lyrics from “A Slice of Saturday Night”, an old West End musical, entered my head: “I’m looking at you…. looking at me …. looking at youuuu…. who’s looking at meeee!”. As we stared at each other I assumed in my lyric-preoccupied thoughts, that he would veer out of the way, given that he was the one on the wrong side of the road. Apparently he made the exact same assumption about me and by the time we both realised that the other was not moving out of the way, it was too late. I screamed in fright as our front wheels collided head-on without either of us even reaching for our brakes! Once more the ground rose to meet me! I lay on my back for a moment, my bicycle handlebars pressing into my abdomen, the back wheel pressing against my ankle. Realising that I wasn’t hurt I pushed the bike off myself and stood up. My fellow casualty, equally unhurt, stood up at the same time. Standing beside each other with no common language, we looked at each other in stunned silence. I started to laugh and he said what sounded like “bitch” but was probably something polite/apologetic, before mounting his bike and cycling away. A Slice of Saturday Night is a very funny musical. Almost as hilarious as this latest meeting between my skull and the ground! I laughingly hummed those lyrics all the way to the office, approaching the intersections much more hesitantly than usual.
This evening I sat in my favourite restaurant writing when a text arrived from Chom “Hi, how are you?”. I replied “I’m okay, I’m just sitting at <the restaurant> relaxing”. Five minutes later a very wet Chom walked in the door and plonked himself down. A boring day with no customers and now it’s raining! We sat and talked for two hours, about the children we teach together and the funny things they say and do; about Chom’s family and childhood which is typically marred by premature death and suffering. He reminded me of the day we were at a rural village together when some national colleagues appeared from nowhere as we were running from a rainstorm and called us in under their house. They were having a bit of a party and we joined them for a beer while waiting for the rain to stop. Chom asked me did I remember seeing the meat that the men were eating that day? I don’t remember seeing any meat. “Oh. Because it was dog. But they told me, don’t tell the Barang that we are eating dog, because they will not be happy with us”. Quite honestly, as long as the animal dies quickly without unnecessary suffering, I don’t consider eating dog to be any different to eating pig, cow or any other animal (except I don’t intend to ever eat dog myself). It was a fun couple of hours and I love having such a mixture of friends – local and expat, all mixed in together with such interesting and often-comical differences between us all.