What are the signs to look out for to know if you are settling in in a new environment? How do you know you have “arrived”? My personal indicators in no particular order:
- When your favourite café (out of three) organises soy milk for your hot chocolate because you are lactose-intolerant. Status: Usually successful (except on Sundays when they have one staff less on the team despite a lot of customers and once we had a minor hiccup as they served the warmed soy milk without chocolate). At first, however, they will tell you that they don’t have soy milk. When you suggest that they might get some, they will look at you completely perplexed and need some time to consult with each other. Just be patient and smile encouragingly, they will eventually move into action. Not recommended when you are short of time or temper.
Next step: They understand that you are a frequent customer, always ask for hot chocolate made with soy milk and start to stock soy milk instead of going through the same procedure and running to the market every time to buy a single pack. Status: Utterly failed. I was so confident at the outset. I remembered when I lived in Kosovo in 2001 and asked for Diet Coke in the lunch restaurant around the corner of our office. They only had regular Coke but without any fuss, someone went out to buy it and the next day I was informed unasked that they had Diet Coke available. I don’t understand why it should be so much more difficult in Laos than in Kosovo. I have given up and drink my hot chocolate at home.
- When the waiter of your favourite dinner restaurant (out of four) understands when you order “Lao beef” and “Caesar salad”, even though they are named “beef Lao” and “salad Caesar” in the menu. Status: Another miserable fail. Despite the same scene being repeated at a weekly basis, the waiter stares in utter astonishment as if he had never heard of anything like this before and needs pointing out the dishes in the menu. It is still my favourite restaurant for dinner. I don’t want to think about what this says about life in Thakhek.
Next step: I don’t dare to ask for more.
- When the milk man sees you coming to his premises, jumps up and has two milk bottles ready by the time you have parked your bicycle because you usually buy two of those bottles. Status: Surprising, but actually happening. People in Thakhek seem normally rather placid.
Next step: When your husband goes to buy milk and calls to ask if he should really buy two litres of milk (yes) instead of one that he asked for and if so, why not buy one big container (because it is so bulky), as the milk man insists he should take two one-litre bottles. Status: What more could you want.
- When the two market women next to each other selling fruits stop fighting about from whom you are going to buy but accept the rotation scheme that you have introduced in response to their somewhat untypical eagerness. Status: Getting there, they don’t pull at me anymore and there is hardly any resentment from the pushy older woman as well as only little obvious smugness from the younger one when it is her turn.
Next step: They tell you whose turn it is and even continue taking turns when your husband goes shopping. Status: Probably too much to ask.
- When the only market woman who occasionally has a few heads of broccoli or a modest pile of sugar peas calls out to you from far away: Madam, madam, broccoli, come! and walks to you to lead you by the arm to her stand. Status: Another shining example of a pro-active sales person. All is not lost.
Next step: Maybe she could be a bit more discreet and not make everybody stare at me. Status: That’s probably me. Who am I fooling anyway, I’m usually the only foreigner in the market and stick out like a sore thumb. Be content.
- When you actually understand instead of guess what people say in Lao. Status: Fail, fail, fail. I always thought I am not entirely inept at learning languages but Lao gets the better of me. I cannot get the hang of it. I don’t hear if the same syllable is pronounced in a low, middle or high pitch, raising or falling or steady. I never will. Not to speak of reproducing those sounds. I’m desperate.
Next step: Scale back your own expectations and pressure. Instead of aiming at understanding what they say, try to make them understand the few haphazard words that you know. Like salt. Or tomorrow. And learn the alphabet. Actually, start learning. Status: Looks promising on a very modest level, at least I get now passion fruit instead of lemon juice. And I used to be able to write almost all of the consonants and vowels and diphthongs including the short and the long versions and how they are written depending on whether they are in the middle or end of a syllable (altogether 76 characters and combinations), before I got fed up and stopped revising and promptly forgot everything. Well, maybe it doesn’t look very promising, but I haven’t given up yet, I just need to start again.
- When the first improvements you made to the house need re-doing. Status: The shower curtains came down. The silicone around the kitchen sink I applied when we moved in looks as disgusting as the one I scratched out. The lime scale in the bathrooms that resembled stalagmites and required many bottles of toilet cleaners to get rid of, are building up again. The garden looks the same green hell that I weeded out just a few weeks ago. It will never end.
Next step: Get a cleaning help/gardener/handy (wo)man. Status: Inexplicable fail so far. Whereas in other countries, when you ask a bit around, everybody has a friend or sister or cousin who might be willing to help out in an expat household, in Thakhek people don’t seem to be very interested in work opportunities to earn a bit on the side. I can’t help wondering what this might mean for all the well-intentioned income generating projects of the international aid agencies and NGOs.
Overall score? Not quite a soft landing, but landed.