It's All Normal
It's Saturday morning and I'm in the car, eating a spicy chicken pate from a blue and white plastic bag. I am going to Delmas all by myself. I'm been putting this off because I'm quite nervous to drive and teach the class without my husband. But I know the intersections by name now, and I say them to myself, praying I won't get lost. Intersection Clercine. Turn right to Intersection Rita. Turn right onto Airport Road and go around the traffic circle and straight through that one working red light. That's when things get more complicated. Up a twisting road and turn by the graffitied wall: "Every citizen should have a gun." This is Delmas 31. Up past the radio station, and cut through a side street where merchants sell dogs, chickens, pigeons, and ducks in cages in the hot sun. This is Delmas 33. Pass the Dasani water billboard and National Television of Haiti. The road gets narrower and I'm navigating a two-way-should-be-one-way street turned market. A lot more turns that I somehow actually remember and I'm passing Port au Prince's three "towers," Natcom, Digicel (both cell phone companies) and Hotel Marriott. And I arrive, only 20 minutes late, and climb the winding stairway to the breezy, naturally lit, third story classroom.
My dad has saved my morning. Only two students are there, both of them men around my husband's age, so it could have been a very awkward lesson. Saturday is conversation practice day, and Dad has offered to do a Zoom call with them. He at first refuses to talk English because he loves Kreyòl so much. But soon they're chatting away as businessmen about the court system in the USA and how child support is collected. My students are all lawyers and students of human rights. They're very passionate about their job and about learning. All I have to do this morning is write down unfamiliar words on the board, and I find that I can predict exactly when they won't understand and finish their sentences when they need more English words. How did I think teaching adults was so much scarier than teaching children?
Yes, it's amazing what can feel normal.
Back at home, my house is full of men - washing cars, sleeping on couches, talking on lawn chairs on the porch. My husband is at Group D'homme choir practice. I tell them they're welcome to cook spaghetti and head to my "old" market, Damien. My brother-in-law says the gangs have been shooting today on the road to Tabarre, the bigger one.
My birthday is next week, so as I spend my money in this little market that's on the road to my old job, I'm thinking about where I was last year at this time. I was trying to learn to drive, and was hardly trusted out of the gate with a car alone. Zèzè was buying random bits of food here and there to supplement what my mom-in-law gave us because he was scared for me to try to go to market alone and get swindled and mistreated. Now the vendors tell me, "Ou achte pi rèd pase Ayisien." You drive a harder bargain than Haitians. Today someone even told me I spoke Kreyòl better than them. Yes, they love to butter me up and it works. But I'm definitely not afraid of them.
Last September, my husband was still trying to get me to drive myself to work - my teaching job on Santo 17, and I had to turn a total of only 4 times to get there. I was just starting the months of new bride exhaustion. The days of getting home at dusk - exhausted and sweaty, trying to sleep over the noise of the basketball game going on in the yard. And then cleaning at odd hours, like from 10-11 P.M. because I didn't want my husband to think I was a slob.
On Saturdays, my house was filled with the same men, but back then it truly did feel full. Again, I would try to sleep over the noise of the pressure washer. Sometimes I cooked them mushy spaghetti myself, and sometimes they probably went hungry. My embarrassment has faded over the months. I share my kitchen with them, and they open my fridge for ice water without asking - what a relief. They all shower before leaving and if someone needs to stay for night sometime, it's not a big deal. "Nèg sa yo se kolon pa m." These men are my crowd.
I really had no idea what moving to another country would be like. It still surprises me how much a comfort zone can grow. I was raised just like everyone else in America, and now I'm living on Haitian rice and beans and cooking chicken legs that were swarming with flies before they arrived in my refrigerator. I know the names and uses of a dozen new vegetables, and instead of Walmart shopping cart full of rustling plastic bags, my single pink Galveston Island tote full of bits of everything from plantains to passionfruit feels like abundance.
Let me tell you, it's a hard road getting there.
I would not want to relive the days I spent in the streets with Zèzè's policeman friend, trying to get a Haitian driver's license. One day we ran out of diesel, and due to a miscommunication, he put in a can of gas. I was actually quite sick that day already, and that was a bad few hours in the sun. I wouldn't want to go back to trying to make school fun for third graders with absolutely no extra money and supplies. I wouldn't want to go up to Delmas to the fancy offices of Compassion mission, where I went with another of Zèzè's friends to take a test for my online translating job.
Haitians push you to your limit.
The friend that took me for the translating test didn't tell me that one third of it would be in French, a language that he knew I didn't know. Embarrassed and infuriated, I handed in that part of the test blank. But after a few months, Compassion called to say the French wasn't that important and I could do the job. Sometimes I'm just scared. I don't want to be responsible for food I'm not an expert at making, and I can hardly bring myself to lift my scissors and cut out a dress without a pattern. How do these people really think I can do all these things? A few weeks ago I turned down the task of tailoring a friend's new Sunday pants. I was too busy that day to get it done, but because I was sitting at my sewing machine, he believed I could help him out! And I know exactly how it would have all gone down. I would have started, immediately felt like I was in over my head, done my best, and handed him back a very imperfect pair of pants. And he would have accepted them graciously, thanked my profusely, and worn them to church in all their imperfectness.
So this year, I have learned that comfort zones can grow. You can be pushed beyond reasonable expectations, feel lost, then suddenly realize that it has all become normal.
It's amazing what can become normal in a year. Like driving all alone on a Saturday morning, with a spicy chicken pate in a plastic bag. Intersection Clercine. Intersection Rita. Around the traffic circle and through the one working red light. Turn by the graffiti: "Every citizen should have a gun." The radio station is Delmas 31. Cut past the dog merchants to Delmas 33. When you pass the Dasani billboard and go through the crowded market, you're almost to the 3 towers. And your 3rd story classroom. It's all normal.