Sunday, 1 May 2011

Expatriate lunches and dinners, and why I loathe them

If there is one thing that I really dislike about expatriate life, it's all the lunches and dinners.  There are so many of them, at least one a week, and sometimes more.

So why do I continue to go, you ask?  Well, a few reasons.  First of all, there ain't much else to do in Antananarivo, Madagascar on a weekend, unless you leave the city to join nature.  There are no cinemas, no parks, no playgrounds, no museums that have had any upkeep in the past, oh, 30 years.  There are no outdoor cafés.  You can't even walk around town, because apart from the fact that you will be very quickly surrounded by street beggars on all sides, there are no sidewalks, the traffic is scary and the pollution is enough to give anyone instant asthma.

So we visit each other.  (And sometimes the "club olympique", which is just a campout with a swimming pool, tennis courts and some stables with horses - but we don't like the food there).

Visiting each other reduces our own boredom and especially the boredom of our children, who would be otherwise locked in our air conditioned houses watching dubbed Hannah Montana French satellite TV all day long.

Why don't I enjoy these lunches and dinners as much as I should?  It's not like I don't love our dear friends (bless their hearts).  It's just, well, me.

For one, I'm a vegetarian.  Almost.  I do eat beef and duck and lamb and poultry, so you could argue that I'm very far from being a vegetarian.  But I don't each shellfish or any sea creature that lives on the sea floor.  I also don't eat tuna.  I don't eat ham or pork.  I won't touch fois gras (goose or duck liver paté).  And I generally don't eat fish unless I am right next to the sea and the fish has been caught the same day (and it's not tuna, of course).

If I go through this laundry list with my hosts, they will inevitably give me this strange look and try to review each item to understand why I won't eat it.  Since I refuse to get into a long discussion about levels of mercury in tuna with someone who hasn't even read up on the issue, it's just easier to say that I'm a vegetarian.

The problem is when either I forget to tell them that I'm a vegetarian, or they forget that I am one, or (more often than not) they haven't forgotten but (quite understandably) they don't want to have to adapt their fantastic menu to my fastidious tastes.  The French can't imagine a meal without fois gras and the Americans can't imagine a meal without shrimp.  So I often end up just not eating half the stuff that is being served.

The second problem is with dinners - late dinners.  Well before motherhood, my brain was wired to go to bed no later than 10:30 pm.  At 11 pm, I'm a zombie.  Post-motherhood, I'm the same way, plus add the fact that I have an todder who, since birth, has woken me up at 5:30 every morning - for the day.

In Antananarivo, when someone invites you over to dinner, you arrive at 8, you talk for what seems like an eternity, and you start the meal at 10 pm.  At 10:30, I'm ready to hit the sack (keep in mind that I have been up since 5:30 am) but it would be rude to do so, as most people haven't even finished their main course by then (I have though, because I generally have only been able to eat the rice and vegetables).

"Well, then, why don't you explain to your hosts your problem", you ask.

You're right.  But I need to do this when I accept the dinner invitation, so that they are really forewarned.  This is what happened the last time I had to explain at the actual dinner  (I was solo that evening, as the Frenchman was in Paris on business):

Me: "Thank you so much for having me over.  I had a wonderful time."
Hostess:  "You're leaving already?  It's only a quarter past midnight."  (I am not kidding.  She considered a quarter past midnight on a Thursday night to be "early" for leaving a dinner party).
Me: "Well, yes.  My 18-month old son wakes me up at 5:30 every morning so I get tired pretty early.  And I have to get enough sleep in before tomorrow morning."
Hostess (who is French, by the way, which really does explain a lot): "5:30?  This is not acceptable.  Can't you just give him a bottle?"
I'd like to mention here that I don't understand how on earth a bottle solves the problem.  You want me to get out of bed and go to the kitchen and warm up a bottle of milk for my son?  At 5:30 in the morning?  Are you fricking kidding me? 

Back to the conversation:
Me: "Well, I do nurse him when he wakes up but he stays awake after that.  His day starts then.  He's just wired that way."
Hostess, with look of shock in her eyes: "You're still breastfeeding him?  But isn't he is too old for that."
Me, shrugging my shoulders: "er, I don't know.  People don't seem to think that he's too old for a bottle, and breastfeeding is the normal way to feed a baby..."
Another guest, now listening in on the conversation pipes in to say: "So you're a militante."
Me, shrugging shoulders again and trying to smile: "I don't know what that means.  In any event, it's not the nursing that causes my son to wake up.  My six-year old also wakes up at 5:30.  Fortunately, she's capable of taking care of herself.  It's just the way our brains are wired in our family.  And of course, the 18-month old needs to be looked after once he's awake."   
Understand that I don't generally mind being questioned about nursing my 18-month old.  After all, what better way to educate people?  But when I've just told you that I have to go because I am extremely short on sleep, why are we having this conversation?  I told you that i had to go.  I told you my reason.  Why are you now launching a discussion about the fact that I "still" breastfeed my son?

The third problem that I have with lunch and dinner parties is that the conversation generally bores me.  There.  I said it.  I find about 90 percent of the discussion during lunch and dinner parties dreadfully boring.

Am I the only one?  I don't know.  I'll be the first to admit that I'm borderline Asperger's when it comes to small talk - it's not just that it bores me - I am incapable of participating in it.  I have no idea what to say.  And the problem is that most stuff for me is small talk.  I care very little about the hotel you stayed in when you went to Toliar (in the south of Madagascar) last year and certainly not enough to listen to you talk about it for half an hour.  I care not much more about the cute little restaurant that you discovered while you were there.  I'll be happy to talk to you more about that should I ever decide to book a trip to Toliar (which is unlikely ever to happen), but I have no desire to hear all about it for twenty minutes now.  I'm happy to talk about that little boutique you discovered up last week for about, oh,  thirty seconds and then I will try to change the subject.  I don't give a rat's ass about where to buy great shrimp, not least because I don't eat it.

I would love to talk about politics (especially French or US politics) but apparently I'm not allowed to.  Religion is another topic that fascinates me but apparently that's taboo, too.  I'm always happy to talk about someone's kid of whatever age, even if the "kids" in question are already adults.  "What grade?  What school?  What does she plan to do when she graduates this year?" "Where do they live now?"
Fortunately, people are always happy to give forth when it comes to talking about their kids and I never get bored by it, but I can only milk that topic so much.

As an expatriate and a mom of bicultural children, the topic of schools and education fascinates me, but I have the impression that many people aren't so interested in that subject.  Most French people accept that their kids go to the French school, wherever they live, without thinking much about alternatives, and most American people accept the American school in the same way.

I love to talk about the ins and outs of people's businesses.  Give me a factory or store owner anyday and I will ask about how they select their inventory, how hard it is to get and train staff, and who designed their products.  It's not often you get to meet this kind of person though, and when you do, even if he or she is keen to discuss the business in detail, others around the table don't understand why you keep bringing up questions about the nitty gritty of running some store or factory at a dinner party.

Yep, just say it.  I've got Asperger's.  Or I'm just too academic about things.

My saving grace is the Bambino.  He is often present for lunches at people's houses, and I therefore often have to excuse myself from the table because he needs some attention for whatever reason.  It's a great way to escape! If there are other bigger kids hanging around, I like to talk to them too.  At a lunch a few weeks ago, I had a great bunch of French kids asking me all kinds of questions about bilingualism and trying out their English on me.  It was much more interesting than the discussion among the adults about that hotel in Toliar....


N said...

Oh how I understand you on the small talk bit! Fortunately Canadians generally get very quiet once the small talk is over at dinner parties, so they all seem to end pretty early as a result.

If your kids are always coming with you at those dinner parties, can't you excuse yourself and say it's time for your children to go to bed?

patricia said...

Hi! This is the first time I’ve visited your blog .I really liked the article.You're very caring and loving mom.Keep it up...Stay healthy,being concerned with your health is extremely very important, when you're an expat, make sure you are covered with an Expat Health Insurance .

Alisa said...

You crack me up...particularly your comments about the baby bottle and nursing (isn't that the normal way to feed a baby?)!! I can sympathize. We live in Mexico now, and they are night owls as well. Let's start a church activity at 8:30pm? kids have already (hopefully) been asleep for 30 minutes!!! Ahhh! This is us: