The last day of school marks the end of the expat year. In a matter of days, entire households are packed up, apartments re-rented, and friends that have meant so much to us this past year disappeared into the ether – or into a Facebook profile. The beginning of the expat year starts with the first day of school, and for some reason, it always brings the bittersweet knowledge that with that new beginning, the end of life as you knew it before summer R&R is over. Officially. You can no longer put off dealing with this while you suspend yourself in the fantasy life of summer vacation.
This year was especially difficult for me, and sitting in the parent bleachers during the annual Einschulung (http://blogs.transparent.com/german/tradition-how-germans-celebrate-a-child%E2%80%99s-first-day-at-school-einschulung/ ) for the new kids at the DBs school, my mind wandered and I found myself a little overwhelmed. Maybe more than a little.
This may seem rather strange to those of you who follow me, or who know me well. I’ve always been in a mobile household – I’m a TCK myself, and I’ve never lived anywhere longer than 4 years in my entire life. Goodbye is a fact of life for me. This year, however, there seemed to be more than the usual number of farewells. The friends of mine who have already left since our arrival in Mumbai are the ones who got me off on the right foot and helped me so, so much. Mumbai isn’t an easy place to settle into, even for an experienced expat, and even if you’ve done the developing country thing before.
So this post will be a little different. I’d like to give a brief shout-out to all the folks who invited me for chai, who dragged me around Colaba, Kala Ghoda, and Bandra. To the people who brought us dinner when we first arrived, to the ladies who sponsored us for the Breach Candy Club membership, and for the women (mostly) who gave me their cell phone number within two minutes of meeting me and asked me to call them if I needed anything. And I did. Repeatedly.
Since December, I’ve lost the following friends:
- The “Internal Expat” Indian lady whose husband clicked with DiploDad in a way few do and whose daughter was DB2’s best friend. Never have I fallen so hard and so fast and so perfectly into an expat friend relationship. I miss her every day. Damn her for not being on Facebook.
- The lovely British woman I played “Six Degrees of Separation in Hong Kong” with and who now runs a B&B in the UK. http://www.garthsfarm.com/ I am still indebted to her for the Wine Man’s phone number.
- The German class mom who emailed me the minute she knew her son would be in DB2’s class. I wish I’d gotten to know her better, and one year in her smiling presence was just not enough. I also feel slightly guilty that the leaving book I ordered for her son arrived the day after they left Mumbai.
- The Turkish mom who called me “Darling”, greeted me with hugs and hung out with me at the BCC every other weekend. Her kids were both in class with my DBs – her spirited, independent daughter gave DB1 a run for his money, and DB2 and her son shared many a swim at the BCC.
- The Chinese German lady. The quintessential lady for the 21st century – she looks Chinese due to her mother’s bloodline, but is German in every other respect you could possibly imagine. Her son was in DB2’s class and by the last day of school, it was just him and DB2 still standing. I will miss her sassy sense of style and her quick smile for everyone.
- The Austrian Dance Instructor Mom. An infectious smile and legs that I envy beyond any other gams. Her son was DB1’s best friend, and they both drove their teachers completely insane upon occasion. She was the voice of reason for juvenile behavior, a friend who rolled with the punches and who taught me the meaning of “Don’t worry. It’s just India. You deal!”
- The Awesome Co-CLO. Even if he sat on the opposite (wrong) side of the field for the 1990 Fiesta Bowl game, Awesome Co-CLO was pretty cool. He reached out to us not just as the CLO, but as a friend, and along with his Bond-Girl-Named Awesome Wife, shared many a happy evening, conversation, and experience in Mumbai.
- The Neighbors Across the Hall. Newlyweds. LEGO enthusiasts. More energy than any parent could possibly have. Is it any wonder the DBs and we loved them? Mr. Neighbor was our social sponsor to Mumbai and the best we have had in our years in the FS. We were fortunate to be invited to be part of their wedding and it was a memorable occasion not only because it was an Indian wedding (she is Indian), but also because it was one of those where you just know how much they belong together and you can feel it.
- The Cool FSO. He lived in our building. He has a full sleeve tattoo. And a friendly rescue dog. My kids think he is the bomb. (The fact that I still say that is probably evidence I am waaaaay less cooler than he is.)
- The Upstairs Neighbors. She was the working mom; he was the SAHD who defied definition. They also chose to send their kids to a school other than the usual American School. I will miss her friendly smile, and his witty sarcasm at the bus stop. I think it was sarcasm. I’m pretty sure it was.
- The Principal and his Wife. Oh, I was so sad when I found out they were leaving. Wife took me around town for successive Mondays for about three months. I truly enjoyed our exploring adventures, coffee dates, and her positive attitude. Principal was a calming presence and always there for help and encouragement.
- The Only Here for a Year Mom. Another German mom, she and I were under the wing of Principal’s Wife together. My partner in introduction to Mumbai, she threw herself into her One Year Here with an enthusiasm that was enviable. I hope I see that much in the four years we are to be here.
- The Upper Primary German Homeroom Teacher. One of the few bright spots in an otherwise difficult year for DB1. UP Teacher was patient, kind, and encouraged DB1 when he needed it. She was an excellent teacher in that she understood his weaknesses, told us how to help him, and went the extra mile to get him where he needed to be. She did it all with tact, honesty, and kindness. I will miss her sense of humor, her candid manner, and smile.
- They Guy Who Should Have Been My Direct Supervisor. Oh, I am a little bitter this never worked out. Thanks to a massive nightmare in which I became the Poster Child for Security Clearance Messes, I never got the chance to work with him. I regret that. So much. DD will miss his wife and her professionalism, an excellent officer as well.
- The Friends of the School President. Madam President was intriguing. Blond hair blue eyes, but otherwise, Indian. She wore kurtas all the time, had a pierced nose, wore a marriage necklace and spoke fluent Hindi. She organized every school program, herded us all, and welcomed everyone. How we will survive without her next year is a good question.
- The One With the Beautiful Name. When I met her, I remarked that her name was one I recognized from Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. She told me that the name was one of the five rivers in paradise, in heaven. Oh, it fit her so well. Calm, beautiful, and strong. Her family was just as lovely, and DB1 will miss her son on the pitch as much as I miss watching her daughter turn carwheels during football practice.
- And then, on the first day of school, my second Turkish friend and her kids weren’t there. She snuck out of town quietly rather than have a big fuss. I get it, I truly do, but I wish I’d been able to know I’d be giving her the last hug in Mumbai and give her a little something to remember everything by.
I know I’ve missed others. If you are one of them, I apologize. In such a crowded field, it is difficult to include everyone. And it was crowded this year.
There is, however, one person who stands out above all others.
Her name is Frau Anna Cuhls, and she was DB2’s teacher this past year. She too has left, and to say that I am a little sad is an understatement. At the DB’s school, they have a tradition of Leaving Letters – kids and teachers write them for each child and teacher who is leaving to put in a “Leaving Book”. I’d like to share what I would have written in a Leaving Letter to her below:
Liebe Frau Cuhls,
Wie geht es Ihnen? Es geht mir gut.
Thus begins every Leaving Letter from the community at school. For me, these lines are not just rote, but represent so much; not least of all how far you have taken DB2 this year. When we enrolled him at the school, we were concerned at how he would fit in, if his language skills would be enough, if he would be able to catch up.
Within a few weeks we knew that somehow Fate and the Heavens had conspired to give DB2 you as his first grade teacher. He not only caught up, but he thrived, and he loves you so much. I remember one conversation where I had to admit that upon occasion he called me “Frau Cuhls” instead of Mommy. When you told me that he also sometimes called YOU Mommy instead of Frau Cuhls, I was a bit taken aback, until I realized that it mean that he felt a comfort and peace with you that gave him the security to grow and flourish as he did this year.
Whenever you saw me, you made it a point to discuss DB2’s classroom performance, tell me the funny things he did, and when you did, I knew that you were just as excited about his progress and him as I was. Well, maybe not quite as excited, but really close. I felt happy, confident, and secure knowing that he was in your hands for most of the day. There’s a certain guilt many moms feel when they miss so much of their child’s life, but I never felt that with you, because I know that he gained so much by being in your class.
All of the performances, all of the projects, even the homework you sent home was inspired. When I learned how you were teaching grammar by having a class of little boys jump up, pound fists into hands and do otherwise active things instead of drilling it into them by rote memorization, I knew then that you were beyond gifted. In short, you are the most gifted teacher I have ever encountered, including those in my own (long) academic life. Ever.
I wish you well in your new adventures beyond Mumbai, and we hope, especially DB2, that we will meet again. I take heart in the German expression, “Wir treffen uns zweimal im Leben”.
Godspeed, Frau Cuhls. Godspeed.