I speak not in hyperbole,
I speak in true words muted to their undertone,
choosing a pebble where you would a stone,
projecting pebbles to immensity.
For where love is no word can be compounded
extravagant enough to frame the kiss
and so I use the under-emphasis,
the muted note, the less than purely rounded.
from The Hidden Room
This year we are living abroad, my husband and daughter and I. The opportunity to spend a year on the Continent arose a couple of years ago, and we leapt on it. I was newly out of graduate school, unemployed, and dissatisfied with our city. A year spent learning a new language in a beautiful place, travelling, and making new friends was hugely appealing. How could it not be? That sounds like a brochure aimed at prospective exchange students with starry eyes and naïve wallets.
Between our decision and our departure, things happened: fêtes, crises, tragedies of varying magnitudes. We discovered we would be taking a baby with us. We discovered what it is like to live out of a suitcase in your own home for six weeks. (Helpfully: I don’t recommend it.) By the time we finished our preparations for departure, I was so drained by the preceding twelve or so months that I felt ready to come home, not to leave it. I worried that I had used up everything I would require to survive abroad. I worried that my patience had become a jumpy, overexerted muscle, totally useless for the looming feats I knew it would be obliged to perform.
My intuition was, for the most part, correct. We are fully nine months into our adventure, and even now — with under one hundred days to go — I feel that coping with life in Germany is hyperbolically difficult. This is ridiculous. It is a first-world country: clean water, flush toilets. Our host city is incredibly wealthy, more so than our home city, and forcefully civilized. My German is poor but I can get by well enough to shop and order food in restaurants, and in a pinch I could handily locate an English speaker most anywhere.
Really, the problem is me: my ability to cope with the little things has been totally eroded. I would guess that the combination of linguistic and social isolation of being in a foreign country and language and an almost purely domestic role has the effect of magnifying the trivial to titanic proportions, in a horrible parody of what PK Page describes. There is no virtue in this habit.
For example, let me tell you about my kitchen. It’s basically a microcosm of my frustration with life abroad. We are subletting a flat from a pair of older American academics, acquaintances of acquaintances — an ideal arrangement, because apartments in Germany typically come with nothing: no light fixtures, no appliances, no kitchen cupboards. The kitchen is tucked up into a dormer, long and narrow and full of light all day. When we arrived, everything in the drawers and cupboards was covered with an unidentifiable sticky residue (the former occupant, a retired academic, unwisely neglected to keep on the cleaner employed by the tenants). I can’t tell if the oven has never been cleaned, or simply never used. There is one lidless frying pan. The upper cupboards are big one-piece Ikea jobs hinged at the top, which means you need both hands to open them and extract a sticky saucer. The lower cupboards have legs that hoist them eight inches off the floor. This is the perfect height for my toddler to squirm under, and eat rogue desiccated green peas, and poke objects into the 220-volt unprotected electrical sockets that I can’t reach.
Then there is the food. We shop on foot almost daily, a task which I loathe and with which my husband graciously and frequently assists, and still we are always out of everything. It seems that the only vaguely healthy snack food available to us (not requiring a dedicated bus trip to the organic grocery store) is lye-glazed pretzels. At about four p.m. every day I look around the kitchen and think longingly of my stocked pantry, my local food buying club, my crockpot, my microwave, and my dishwasher, all waiting for me back home, out of reach. Then I drag the baby out from under the cupboards by the ankle, wash last night’s dinner out of the frying pan, open the fridge to discover all the ingredients I’m missing, and take a lot of deep breaths. It’s only the kitchen, but the accumulation of these pebbles renders them too immense to skip them playfully over the skin of my days.
It isn’t only the kitchen, but by gum, can we talk about this poem? It won’t be the last Page I post, to be sure. She’s one of my very favourites. Even a chapter about her in my MA thesis couldn’t spoil Page for me. This is every bit as elegant and restrained as the speaker says it will be, down to its barely-there punctuation. This is a black sheath dress of a poem. And it’s a love poem, those broken rhymed couplets like parted lips. The lightest touch in that final line, the extra foot an imperfect freshwater pearl. One day I will be able to write about this year with such gentleness. But not yet.