I thought I'd already learned most of the important lessons about life in a foreign land from our Cuso International placement in Honduras during 2012-2014. But it turns out there was one really big one still to come.
I don't mean to suggest that the profound unpleasantness of this period of house-sharing is the fault of the two other Cuso volunteers who Paul and I share the house with. At this point, I'm quite sure they're as dismayed as I am at how it is that perfectly nice people can end up with a negative group energy that sends us all scrambling for our little hidey-holes when it all gets to be too much (which happens with increasing frequency as the Feb. 27 ends of our posts draw near).
As the mother and stepmother of five children and the host-mom for all of their many friends during the teen years, I am well familiar with the difficult task of existing in a household full of people. Paul and I survived that period and figured that for a Cuso placement of four short months, sharing a house would be OK.
But I guess the parent-child relationship is a different situation. You might not like that there are a lot of people in your kitchen chopping vegetables or hogging the stove, but at least they're your people. It's a whole other ball game when you don't have that family connection.
One of the problems has been our landlady. Paul and I originally spent the first six weeks living in a room in the house where she lives, not understanding that she actually lived there and didn't just manage the place. That was a head-trippy experience of an entirely different kind, as the spacious "common area" was nothing of the kind, seeing as we couldn't sit out there or go into the kitchen without running into the landlady and being harangued about something we or another tenant was doing wrong.
So then we moved into a house down the road that was managed by the same woman (Error! Error!), where two of our fellow Cuso volunteers were living. We liked the two of them and we all got along, and so the idea of sharing a three-bedroom house that would be totally under our group control seemed like a great plan.
And for a couple of weeks, it was. We even made the ridiculously tiny fridge work, each of us claiming our little shelves and learning how to stack things strategically on top of each other rather than stand them in their own place. We took care to live collectively, washing our personal dishes immediately and not leaving our stuff scattered around the house.
But hey, that landlady. She kept on coming by, usually with a poor sod in tow whose job it is to sweep the terrace, whack at cobwebs, and carry our household garbage to the curb. There is no schedule as to when they will show up, and they just walk right in without so much as a knock - 6 a.m. while I'm doing my morning yoga, 8 p.m. when everyone's solidly into their evening routine, Sunday morning at 8 a.m. while you're sitting in your sleep clothes having a morning coffee. The other day she sat in our living room talking loudly on her cellphone for the better part of an hour while Poor Sod did his cleaning and we cowered in our rooms.
Meanwhile, the honeymoon period of our placements came to an end and we all moved into the next stage, in which you are beset with self-doubt, angry at your workplace, feeling deeply displaced, and unsure whether you're making any difference at all. Paul and I were familiar with the feelings from our time in Honduras and knew that eventually you pass through that, but our housemates were experiencing it for the first time.
We all react to stress in our own way. For a while, the group of us drew together as a unified force against the weirdness of the landlady and the many pressures of working in a new culture in workplaces that often seem baffled at what they should with this foreigner who has been plunked into their midst.
But as the stresses mounted, the unity weakened and our relationships grew strained. We were having to cope with our personal stresses plus manage the way that others in the house coped with theirs, what with all of us living on top of each other. We were living too close and under too much strain to be able to maintain those polite facades that are so vital to collective harmony.
|This sums up how I don't feel right now|
So now there are five of us - still sharing that same tiny fridge and small kitchen, and now feeling increasingly resentful for having to line up for stove time, bug somebody about whether they're hording drinking glasses in their room, jostle for our share of the common space. The Costa Rican isn't to blame for how things have turned out, but his addition to the household was definitely the straw that finished off the camel.
Now, there are lots of times when we don't even pretend to like each other. I actually dread having to be at the house, and am counting down the days until it's all over with a sullen intensity that I don't like seeing in myself. I would like to be able to withdraw to some private space where I could play my accordion and work out my moods through music. But there is no private space.
I wish I could say that I have been able to rise above it all and be the straight-shooting, collaborative problem-solver I like to think I am. But in fact I've been drawn into the petty dramas and us-versus-them intrigues as much as anyone. I have heard snide, provocative comments coming out of my mouth, brought on by an overwhelming urge I haven't felt since I was a bitchy 14-year-old to punish someone for getting on my nerves. Somebody could do a social experiment on what's happening to us.