Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The phenomenon of uselessness.

"He's a really useful engine, you know
All the other engines they'll tell you so
He huffs and puffs and whistles
Rushing to and fro
He's the really useful engine we adore"

My mom: What are they saying? "Useful engine?!" Sounds like some sort of totalitarian government propaganda. Teaching little kids to be "useful" and teaching them to be "really useful engines"...

 (that's a damn fine 'merican right there)

Me:  It's a fictional train, mom. I think it'll be ok.

 I sit in my upper story apartment staring at tree tops, with the ground far below, the washing machine even further below , and I have no idea what to do with myself. All my usual areas of inspiration have fallen flat. My zeal for teaching (along with the onset of visitors and "summer") has been dampened. I am having trouble finding meaning in the every day tasks and absolutely no resemblance of fulfillment in anything else. Does that mean that I have forsaken all homemaker-y tasks? No.  Are my children clothed, fed, and washed? Yes. But am I needed? So they tell me. Am I useful? Doesn't feel like it much.

What does that even *mean,*to feel "not useful?" I have never experienced this before! What is that?!

I can't quite put my finger on it. I don't know that I can say exactly really (you come here for the fine sentence structure, no doubt). Perhaps this is just what happens, and no one tells you about it. Perhaps this is just the way it feels to be completely and utterly humbled. Completely and utterly useless as a newborn baby (with a driver's license - living proof, right here... ok, and I can also use a computer, so more like a 2 year old maybe? oh, they grow up so quickly!), but still very necessary. Is that possible? To be both of those things at the same time? And for that to be a "good," a "step in the right direction"? Where I am supposed to be? Goodness, that seems a stretch.

It's hard, you know? So many stumbles and little moments of failure. So many cultural missteps and language fumbling's. Always trying and coming up just a hair (or entire cow hide) short of success. Your confidence is shot. Your self worth takes a hit. And then you burn dinner. That is your day, your week, your month.

Your year.

A whole year...

...And still having trouble with conversions apparently.

 Because 2 kilos of carrots is very different from 2 lbs. of carrots. And lemons. 
2 kilos is about 4 lbs. 
Of each.
4 lbs.

Making lemonade out of lemons, and all that. 
And carrot cake. Lots of carrot cake.
And laughing about it, which I have yet to do.
(showing you this picture and admitting *this* is way harder for me than writing this entire post. Oh Pride, you lovely little lynch pin)


I never would have thought, had you asked me last year, that all of  this is something that I would ever say. I have done nothing for the last 32 years but carefully mold and construct my life, education, talents in America. This is what we all do. We grow and build our lives within our own culture, with what we know, learning from those around us. And now, in many ways, I am starting all over because what they don't tell you in life school is that all you have been taught and bothered to teach yourself, along with any expectations, don't always transfer so well. Don't always show up looking the same when you welcome them on your exciting European doorstep. *That* I could have predicted, expected even, heck, I've been living it! The starting all over. The way it has made me *feel,* I could not. Someone who has bundled up all her experiences and talents and hopes into two big bundles and carried them all this way, and it's all of a sudden just junk. Some of it practical, some of it whimsical, some of it really silly, but still... junk.  Because it just doesn't translate. At least that's how it feels. (if I throw in the word "feels" does that make this last paragraph more or less dramatic? I'm going for less. Let's agree on less. "Don't say less." "I said less.")

Deep down I cannot ignore that little voice that is telling me that all of this is because there is a greater plan. A plan that begins with me being fulfilled and content and, dare I say, happy, here in Poland. A plan that is not being drafted by me. Not in the least. Good thing too. ;)

P.S. Every day Occasionally I will unload in fishwife manner share my feelings with Martin and his response is always the same. He says I should revel in my successes, find humor in the failures and pat myself on the back for how far I've come. That being here, in Poland, is a big accomplishment in and of itself, and that of course I am useful! Who else would wash the pots and pans (he doesn't "do" pots and pans)?! (and stop being so dramatic, Olivia!)
 I love him. But where I am right now, the only response I can think of is similar to this...

Clearly I am represented by the handsome blond man, Martin is the large giant man ( as he deserves), and all of Poland is the thin Spanish man.

I am laughing now. That's a good start.

P.P.S. I am dedicating this post to Jenny at "Mama needs coffee" who is an American living in Italy, because she sometimes feels like this too (and explains it in a much more candid fashion, but she's only been in Europe 5 months, her sense of humor still exists). So this makes me less weird and for that she deserves a link back.


  1. You're not alone with the grocery store issues! 3 years and we're still making mistakes. I know that isn't encouraging. We ordered a pepperoni pizza this week, don't get one for the kids. It was covered in jalapeno peppers rather than everybody's favorite Italian sausage.

    You're a brave woman, Olivia.

    1. Brave, maybe. I have yet to successfully order pizza without messing something up. How is that possible? The world may never know...

  2. How you feel is how you feel, that's valid. The thing is, it's never as bad as it seems at the time and with each day you do become "less useless". You just don't realize it because the day to day difference isn't measurable.

    But a month or a half a year from now, you'll notice the difference.

    1. You're right. It' not gonna happen over night. As gradual as I became "useful" in America, I will become "useful" here, with a bit of a head start in some areas. No adult likes to feel this way. It's very jarring, really.

  3. God was all over this post. And earlier this morning, I was out on my balcony hanging laundry and having some kind of mini epiphany about my own European 'rebirth' and then, write this. He willed for us to be here, both ontologically and geographically. I always forget that. Because ... the laundry! The grocery woes!

    I need to remember His sovereignty over this all. And that most of our readers and friends watch House Hunters International and swoon over the lives we're living right now...even if the swooning is mostly out of ignorance ;)

    1. p.s. I aaaaaalways cringe over that Thomas phrase. Those Brits...

    2. Me too. I can't stand it when Thomas says he doesn't feel useful, but then again, that is really all they have...

  4. What do you mean by "useful"? Thanks to you your children are happy. It's the most useful and important thing in a whole world.

    This summer is too rainy and depressing. Maybe it will be better soon. I hope.
    I'm in my country and I'm not feeling great - it's too wet, too cold and my husband is in Los Angeles, so I'm alone with my son and I'm bored because there is no work for me now - mainly because the weather.

    Tommorow will be great event - big Children's Book Market in Nowa Huta. I love this every year, but this year I'm not even excited. My son is, but I'm not. I'm just tired doing nothing major.

    There is something bad in the air.

    I'm hugging you virtually.

    1. Thanks for the hug, this whole thing is quite a journey. I can't do it alone that's for sure.

      This weather is horrid. It is definitely contributing to a feeling of listlessness. I was expecting rain but not so much gray! Maybe I will take the kids there tomorrow. We love new books.

  5. Carrot cake and lemonade - very good idea. Once, about a decade ago, I ordered a kilo of sausages (for 2 people) because I thought it would be like 4 or 5 sausages. I was wrong :)

    I can only tell you my opinion, experiences and what worked for me. Adaptation to your new environment and new life will eventually happen all by itself, but are you willing to wait that long? I couldn't wait. With each passing day, I felt more foreign, not less. The amount of things I didn't know and couldn't do by myself was daunting but I knew I had to make it happen. I treated it like a job. I set myself goals, I made plans and I went out and did them. I spent at least 4 hours a day on my plan at the beginning.I didn't have children or a husband back then, but I did have a full-time job. When I really just wanted to crash at home and zone out, I picked up my notebook and did my task(s) for the day. I got to know my neighborhood, then my district, then my city. I opened a bank account, found a doctor, a dentist, a hairdresser, and so on. Later I found a mechanic, friends, a husband...well, you get the picture.

    I have to say that my biggest motivator was an acquaintance who had come to Poland about 10 years before me. I met him when I first came to Poland. He couldn't function without the lady in his life. He still can't more than 10 years later, but he thinks it will just happen for him someday. Oh, and his now wife is responsible for far too much. It's not fair. I don't want to burden my spouse with all the every day responsibilities. Eventually, you will be able to take your children to the doctor or dentist alone. That'll be a great day and you will feel proud. Ok, I got carried away there but I was beaming with pride the first time I took the tram by myself. I'm weird.

    You have some huge positives on your side such as your supportive husband and lovely children. Also you and your family have made a decision to live in Poland. After I made "the decision" to stay in Poland, my motivation for making this place my home shot up and my queasy feelings inside diminished.

    So basically what I am saying is that you are important and you are useful. Now after the first (and probably hardest) year, think about taking time for yourself, to light a fire under your plans to make yourself feel at home in Poland.

    PS I shall now write something that may or may not offend you. I know that you are teaching your children at home with success. I do not know what your decision-making process was for teaching them at home rather than at school. Now that you are in a completely different school system, maybe some of the reasons don't apply??? I am only suggesting that because I was surprised to find out that my 1st grader would have only 3-5 lessons a day. That would provide time for you to do something independently while still providing ample together time. Oh, and catechism is built in to the curriculum. Just to say again, I am not against homeschooling. I was just looking for a way for you to have more "you" time.

    1. Chris, you cant possibly offend me with that comment anymore than anyone else that says the same thing - and I hear it often. And I'm not offended. Homeschooling if a lifestyle choice more than an education decision based on cultural factors. We would be doing it anywhere for the same reasons. Although it is a different reality to come from grandma's caring for the children so I can take some time to myself to what we have now which is maybe a couple hours in the morning, twice a week, for me to leave and go sit somewhere alone. Not really what I want to be doing with free time.

      Your example of the man who's wife does everything is a very real threat for people like me. Especially because Martin works from home and even though I could be doing a lot of what he does, I just don't have to. he is here and he can take the car in, fill out the legal papers, call the doctors office. It's just easier,and he is here anyway. I don't make him because I am scared, he does it because he can. This has been a HUGE part of the adjustment that i haven't mentioned here. martin is here all the time. I am no longer the last say in anything that happens during the day. Everything is now discussed between the two of us. This adds to that feeling of not really being needed because in those cases I literally am not needed except to watch the kids.

      Your suggestion of setting goals is a good idea and I think we have now reached a stasis where I can start using my free time for something other than just catching up on sleep and organizing winter clothes. Thanks for the ideas and sharing your experience. It is always helpful.

    2. Have you thought about getting some help? Maybe someone to come in and teach Polish or music lessons once a week for half-a-day so you can get out of the house?


    3. I have more free time here than in the States, thanks to Martin's work schedule. Getting out of the house, while always nice, doesn't really mean anything unless i have something I really want to be doing outside the home. And I don't, that's the problem.

  6. I think what you describe are some of the typical symptoms of a culture shock. :-)

    1. Good! I suppose the first 6 months here were so crazy that i am just now opening my eyes to what is really before me and what i have to do.

  7. When I read this I thought that if I were you, I'd run for the hills (American ones). Fortunately, I am not you, and you are more determined than anyone I know. You can make it!

    1. I will make it because this is my choice and really have no other option, but it will be a long time before I am truly happy here. And that's ok too.

  8. I think everybody has better and worse days no matter what their nationality is and the country of residence, so maybe that's 'that' part of the month when you feel always a bit upset? :)

    Let's look at this from a different angle: it is far more easier for you to go see a doctor, open a bank account etc. in Poland than if I a Pole would try to do the same in NY or whereever in the States. The reason is simple: English is known worldwide, even in worst hospital in Poland you'll always find somebody with at least 'decent' English, whereas in the USA it would be far more difficult to find somebody who is speaking Polish (esp in smaller cities).

    PS. I found your blog and immediately thought that I'll read it out of curiosity and for educational purposes ;)So please could you always correct my mistakes if I made any?

    Maybe you will write from time to time some posts about English language, I mean the things they don't teach you at learning courses e.g. urban language, words you can't find in dictionaries etc.

    Wish you all the best :)


  9. I think this requires a full discussion via Skype...
    But, in the meantime, I want to share this quote with you--it always made me feel better when I was job-hunting and felt totally useless:
    "No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another." -Charles Dickens