I did. It is my secret weapon that I pull out when things get slow or I’m bored of whatever we’re talking about. A lot of times though, this fact reveals itself all on its own in usual meet-and-greet questions.
I’m then forced to spontaneously sum up a whole year of living exotically on the dark continent in a sentence. I can tell that they want me to say something like “Oh yeah! I rode a rhino to school and in gym class we chased giraffes!”
“Um, yeah. It was wonderful. Very fun. Can I have more wine?” *waggle glass*
Usually, I leave it at that. I have no desire to spill my memories on the dinner table. Most of these casual acquaintances are not deserving of my personal memories anyway.
When we moved to Africa I was 17. I was naïve, terribly idealistic and…mostly naïve more than anything. My new Class of 1997 had 44 people in it, from 21 different countries. I recall feeling a bit out of sorts for several of those first weeks. There was so much to digest and all of it was so enchantingly new. I do truly mean "enchanting." Kenya is a beautiful country with beautiful people. It was so incredibly different and intoxicating at first (the great confusing hodge-podge of a city trying desperately to catch up and prove itself to the world contrasted with the traditional/rural way of life that many people in the country were still living and enjoying).
I don't remember much about my first days of school there except that it rained a lot and the big deal was that the Senior Smoking Lounge was gone. Even some parents were upset! That should have clued me in immediately that something was up. This was definitely different. And not in a crazy giraffe-in-my-backyard kind of way.
Our household adjusted too. For instance, the first time we set off the household alarm system was interesting. About three minutes later a modified golf cart-type vehicle (and I use the word "vehicle" very loosely) appeared in the driveway, loaded down with 10 Kenyan men armed with baseball bats and machetes, ready to bludgeon any would-be intruders to bloody bits before our eyes. They were genuinely disappointed to learn that we had accidentally set off the alarm. I had the distinct feeling that we had really let them down and had ruined their collective day when we told them there were no intruders to beat up on our behalf.
Things normalized at school though. We went to class, we took exams. We started applying for schools and dreaming up our futures. Most had firm plans on attending Ivy League schools or places on the "You Must Be A Genius to Attend And Even Then You Might Not Get In" list.
Me? I had simple dreams. I wanted to go to a public school in Texas. I didn't particularly care which one. Any one was fine with me. I am certain that I was alarmingly dispassionate about the whole thing. You could practically hear my peers saying ”Ohhh, she’s doomed to an ordinary life in the States. Did you hear? She’s going to a public school. Poor thing.”
You could say that compared to most of them, I had set expectations for myself very low. They were going to save the world and get prestigious degrees that would certainly lead to big things. I was going to drink beer in Texas for 4 years and then do...something. Presumably something with a paycheck. (At least I knew that I was going to meet my goal; I have heard that saving the world may be difficult.)
We went our (very) separate ways over the next decade. I've lost touch with most of the people I met that year, for reasons you can probably guess. (Hint: We were not very similar people to begin with.) An interesting twist revealed itself this summer though: most of them are on Facebook. The digital catching-up has made for fascinating after-dinner reading.
The memories came back to me in a marvelous whoosh!
I remembered that every day was an exhilarating adventure, even if all we did was get on board our baby-blue school bus and wave at the police officers across the street with their AK-47s that they liked to toss around, as if they were a sort of militarized, third-world high school drill team.
In many ways it was like this experience that a columnist recently described about living abroad -
Being an expat can complicate your feelings about being American. On the one hand, I think that there is an air of assumed superiority that you don't even realize exists until you live outside the country and feel it get punctured... On the other hand it gives you a much greater appreciation for simple liberties you take for granted growing up in America.
It was an opportunity that I probably won’t ever have again - to live in another country for a year. I was forced to think on my feet and understand different points of view and be alert of my surroundings. I learned about being fortunate and thankful and forgiving and also that monkeys can be quite evil little creatures.
I breathed deeply often and made lasting memories of that beautiful country.