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One Thing at a Time

Francesca Kelly

How quickly one forgets. We're less than a week at our new overseas posting, and it's all coming back to me now: how it is that first week in a completely new country, city, job, language, life. I'd forgotten that no matter how fascinating a place you're in, it's always rough going at first.

I'd lowered my expectations considerably before arriving, knowing from seven other overseas postings (and another in my own country) that high expectations can be one's downfall. So as excited as I was, I'd also given myself a good talking to, and reminded myself about the traffic, the bureaucracy, the transportation hassles, the jet lag, the temporary apartment and the living out of suitcases. I figured, OK, if I keep my expectations low, there won't be any culture shock.

But what I hadn't prepared for was my attitude towards myself -- the fact that I expected more from myself as a veteran of so many moves. If I were stuck in an African backwater or a former Soviet republic, I'd feel justified in some initial feelings of being overwhelmed and a bit lost.

But I'm in Rome, our dream post. The place we've always wanted to live.

Believe it or not, sometimes the glamour posts are the hardest to adjust to initially. Please don't scoff: I'm not complaining about being in Rome. But therein lies the problem: no matter what happens, I feel as if I simply can't complain about being in Rome. No one will take me seriously, least of all myself.

OK, so Rome is wonderful -- I know that, and you know that. There's incredible pasta and fabulous ice cream and to-die-for coffee. Every church has a concert series; every garden has fountains and statues. One park near us, right in the center of the city, has a pond with dozens of turtles sunning themselves among the lily pads. Every time I take a walk, each turn yields new delights in this amazing place. Believe me, we are enjoying those things immensely, and we keep pinching ourselves to see when we're going to wake up.

And yet -- I'm also trying to wake up from jet lag. Our temporary apartment had a huge leak and the bedroom carpet is soaked and mildewed, triggering allergies among the children. Every day I seem to do nothing but schlep things here, schlep things there: milk, boxes I'd mailed to myself, house wares and cleaning supplies, and still, there's always some essential we forgot to buy or just can't find. I've learned that some buses come early, some late and some not at all. When the latter occurs, I've had a devil of a time trying to find a taxi. I've dragged my children all over town, looking at maps and figuring out where to buy tickets. Depending on my mood (and my moods are quite changeable these days), it's either a terrific new adventure or it's a giant hassle.

In short, I'm starting all over again, just when I'd gotten the routine down in the last place. Every city, every country has its rhythm, and I've yet to mesh my own rhythm with Rome's. That doesn't have much to do with Rome, but a lot more to do with my place here, or lack thereof. I could be in Baku or Lagos and the reaction would likely be the same: I just don't belong here yet. I'm some strange thing out of context. I have not yet adapted.

Yes, it'll come. But how do I make it come faster?

Ironically, perhaps the most important way to help myself and my family through this time is not to rush things. Adjustment comes at its own speed; I can't make it arrive more quickly by forcing it. So I'm trying not to expect so much of myself -- or my family. In fact, our daily reminder to ourselves is: slow down and do one thing at a time.

For this typical American, that's not an easy thing to do, but it's a necessary one. My tendency at normal times is to fill up the calendar, and I know I'm not alone. Most people these days schedule every hour of every day, whether it's with meetings, lunch dates, play dates, volunteer groups or running errands.

But when you're in a new country, it takes all your energy and time to do just one thing. One seemingly simple job such as finding a broom, or getting a document, can often turn into a half-day procedure when you don't know the ropes and barely know the language.

Not only that, but do I really want to spend every day doing just necessary things? We also need time for discovery and delight. A frustrating few hours trying to gather school supplies for the kids yielded a part of town where artists' galleries and craftsmen's shops abound. A walk in search of milk turned up not only milk, but also a Romanesque courtyard surrounding a fountain of spouting bronze frogs.

I'm learning, once again, that in the Strange Time of the Newly Arrived -- an intense time in both good and bad ways -- I simply need to go at a slower pace. So my calendar has one thing on it each day, and one thing only. And that's OK, even kind of wonderful, and liberating.

In fact, the Italians have a phrase for it: piano a piano. Step by step. One thing at a time.

Excerpted from Realities of Foreign Service Life, edited by Patricia Linderman and Melissa Brayer-Hess, published by the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide.

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Francesca Kelly