Creating a Happy Life Overseas: No Impartial Bananas and Cordiality Abounding

Part I

I stopped by a friend’s house and saw a platter of bruised and battered fruit on her counter. I looked at her and she said, “I know, I know… no impartial bananas!”

True that. “No impartial bananas” was a phrase I learned years ago and have passed on to newbies. It means that whenever you buy something from a small shop where the clerks don’t know you, you are going to get the worst of whatever is for sale.

If you pull up to a fruit stand for the first time and ask for a kilo of oranges, you will get a few nice oranges on the top of the bag and a few half-rotten ones at the bottom. The way of the world. You can either accept your fate or open the bag, take out each piece of fruit, hand over the bad ones and cause a fuss.

There is no “normal” and no “impersonal.” You get what you get in relation to how well known you are, how fierce you look, what mood the clerk is in, if Mercury is retrograde and the tide tables.

If you are well known, then peace is upon you, you will get milk that was delivered that day, a paratha that was made only a few hours ago, undiseased mangos and an electrician who won’t burn your fuse box.

But if it’s your first time at the store, you are swimming at dawn in bacon pants. There is no use wishing you “Good luck”- luck has nothing to do with it. Be ever vigilant and you might escape without fruit rot and fruit flies.

Part II

Years ago I met another expat woman and we immediately recognized that we were not were not each other’s type. But we were cordial. Years passed of us saying hello, smiling, making chit-chat whenever we happened to meet: speaking of the weather and holiday plans. We knew lots of the same people so we each learned what the other was up to and made a point to greet each other at parties. It was all very civil and grown-up. Then we had a natural disaster and I sent everyone I had a phone number for, including her, messages with the information I had. When I learned she had to leave her place, I told her that she was welcome to stay with me. When she found temporary housing, I let her know that she could come use my washing machine and shower. It is what one does.

Then Covid arrived and again, I sent messages with the updates I knew of and we were in touch more frequently. Eventually she asked me for tea in her garden and we managed a pleasant conversation. This turned into meeting once a month for two years and a lot of happiness on both sides. Her best friend had left, as had mine and from a need for female rapport, we built an admirable acquaintanceship.

This is example A. Example B is female who works at my company who could sacredly manage a “Hello.” Places to go, people to see and I was quite pointedly not one of them. Then I learned she had access to some information I wanted and asked her once, when I ran into her by chance, if she might help me. She was dismissive and I let it go for a year, then asked again in a carefully worded e-mail. She replied that I had sent my request to the wrong e-mail, and that personal requests should be sent to this other e-mail. Sigh. There is no hope for such people.

And that is how it was, until she ran into me by chance yesterday and she began a charming series of questions about how was I doing and what were my vacation plans and… I was not charmed. I knew, more than she herself knew, what was happening. She had made two close female friends soon after arriving and thus had no need to meet more people. But both of her friends are leaving this month and now she was facing what all expat women face: your best friend moves to a different continent and you need to start over making new friends. And I know all this because in a small expat community, you learn, even without trying, what people are up to.

Darling, happy expat life includes creating a veneer of cordiality even when, and especially when, you don’t feel cordial.