The Real Desperate Housewives

“What do you do here all day?” is the number one question us expat wives get. It often comes from visitors or newcomers, surprised to hear that anyone actually lives here. The vast majority of our expats work on rotation, traveling home every six or eight weeks for a couple of weeks off before they return. They go home to their families, their friends, their favorite bars and restaurants, and return with rested eyes, tans, and suitcases full of provisions to get them through the next rotation.

Residential couples are the exception to the norm; there are exactly three of us here at the moment. Visitors hear rumors of our existence but don’t see us much. On a rare sighting they regard us with curiosity, or slight suspicion. I cannot blame them for wondering what kind of person would purposely choose to call this place home.

A contractor gal a couple years back, when there were more like six of us, took to calling us the real desperate housewives. “You don’t mind that I call you guys that, do you?” she asked me, more than once. I knew that others did object, but honestly, it didn’t bother me at all. I found it kind of funny, and kind of cool. She thought the Discovery Channel ought to come do a series about us, and I thought she was right. Us girls used to laugh about our inside secrets, our survival skills. “If only they knew!” we giggled. We had no problem keeping ourselves busy, and had organized so many activities that sometimes we craved some down time. Our husbands knew how awesome our little group was, and often joked amongst themselves that in their next life they wanted to come back as an expat wife.

Today our little group is still awesome, but it’s exactly that – little. As time has gone by our numbers have diminished, and for various reasons we’ve been keeping to ourselves more and more, leaving the house less and less. During the day us girls prefer to avoid the harsh sun, or the heavy rain, or the annoying workers who harass us for food or money or better jobs when we do dare to step outside. We used to go to the pool but it attracted too many lookey-loo’s. We used to go to the gym but it started closing at unpredictable and unadvertised hours. Same thing for the social club around sundown. Who needs that aggravation?

Instead, we’ve been hunkering down inside our homes and focusing on our own pet projects. A couple of the girls are fantastic quilters and tailors, making homemade Christmas and birthday and baby shower gifts. Me, I still teach English and avoid French and occasionally write stories (many more have been started than finished, always a work in progress). All of us read books, do some form of exercise, and have our never-ending projects in the kitchen.

A couple of good friends (an ex-expat couple from here, now living at another mine camp a few hours down the road) came to visit us this past weekend. As the wife and I took a walk around to see her old stomping grounds, she remarked how it felt deserted, like we were walking among ruins or through a ghost town. Long gone are the days when at least a dozen couples lived here, with their parties, and their pets – I remember four different dogs living here at one time – making all kinds of glorious noise. Today, the dogs are gone and our locally-adopted cats and smaller parties just cannot compete. The only noise lately comes from the gardeners shouting at each other outside, a noise only grating on my nerves more and more.

Our friends told us about an acquaintance of theirs who had gone to see a new doctor for a checkup after several years of living in Congo as an expat wife. Her vitamin D levels were so low, the doctor asked if she had been incarcerated. “Yes, as a matter of fact,” she answered. “I kind of have.”

I know the feeling. A year ago, I was still laughing about ‘the real desperate housewives’ moniker and how fun it was to prove it wrong. But lately, I must admit, I’m feeling slightly desperate. I’m missing the couples and friends who have left, or who are on extended vacations at the moment. I’m missing our “normal” lives from before, filled with friends and family and supermarkets and cinemas. I’m missing the ability to jump in my car and go for a long drive with the radio turned way up. Instead, I’m locked up on a self-imposed house arrest. Avoiding the harsh sun like my dermatologists told me to, and running out of vitamin D as if we were living at the North Pole in winter.

But at least I have plenty of down time for the blog, right? Wrong. On January 19, three weeks ago, we lost our internet access. The whole country did. (Certain large companies got it back after a couple of days, with restrictions unless they had their own satellite, but individuals were cut off the whole time.) I won’t go into the reasons for it or my thoughts about it because heaven forbid I should be accused of “journalism” when I don’t even make any money. Let’s just say it was a very dark and depressing three weeks. I suppose the daily clouds and rain didn’t help.

The internet is back, now, since Sunday. Certain things like Facebook are blocked, and we hear it’s for good. But at least WordPress is available, and I can access my own blog once again. But I’ve been staring at a blank screen for the past two days, wondering how to restart, what to say. Should I get reattached to this thing? What if it disappears again? Should the first thing I post be positive, or negative, or neutral? I had written up an account of a lovely day we spent visiting Viviane’s house in town, and was ready to post it on January 19. The day the internet was cut. Somehow it just doesn’t feel like my leading story today.

Now I understand why my predecessors had organized all those weekly activities – bridge, tea, tennis, walking, shopping. So many activities it was hard to find enough time for myself. Now I have too much time to myself. Now I feel like a real desperate housewife, indeed.

11 comments

  1. I was thinking about you and your blog on the way over (personal trip) this time. As much as I take personally being banned from the property, it’s OK when I read your stuff. It used to be, “Damn, I’m not one of the cool kids :-(” Now it’s “I’m not one of the cool kids . . . with diarrhea 🙂

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    1. Ah yes, yet another mark on the “desperate” side of the equation! Now just a normal part of life. Hey speaking of “cool kids,” I hope you’ll let us know the next time you’re in Lubumbashi to get engaged/married/betrothed so that we can plan to come celebrate with you, ok?

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  2. Wow Jen, sure sounds intense over there. It gives me some perspective on my seemingly long winter days living in new city. At least I have the freedom to drive around and go wander the malls with Violette skipping in front of me discovering the world.
    In a funny way what you describe reminds me of being home with a newborn, which I will be soon experiencing again. Although I’m looking forward to it., I’m slightly terrified of the feeling of isolation and sheer repetitiveness it also brings.
    Time to get some play dates happening over there in the DRC:)

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    1. Gala, you’re so right about long winter days, a new city, and a newborn. You should be the one writing a blog and I should be sending you notes of support!! Thanks for being there for me. I can’t wait to see photos of your new little guy! Keep us posted.

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  3. I’m glad you’re back. I always enjoy reading your blogs, no matter how depressing you may feel. If gives me a whole host of “things” to be grateful. Hang in there, kiddo.

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    1. Thanks Bonnie for your support! It gets very lonely over here so it means a lot to me when I hear from the folks back home. You all are the reason I write, so I treasure the notes I get in return. Thank you!

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      1. Jen, sorry about that. The engagement thing is very much centered around the bride, and Mira did work a lot to get it organized. Next time, if you guys are around.

        After my cool kids + runs comment, I got hit with whoever the Congolese version of Moctezuma is and his revenge – well deserved for bringing it up. Good news: it’s not deadly.

        Hope you and the man are good.

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  4. Jen — You questioned whether you should get “reattached” to this “thing” again. For me, I hope you don’t let it go. I so enjoy reading about your life, including the trials, tribulations and everything in between. I have an associate in my office now and she enjoys them also. I know that it has to be tough times there but I know that you are strong enough to get through them. — Cyndi

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    1. Thanks Cyndi, it is so cool that you are reading these! I thought of you when I posted the Lucy pics in the Rain story. The tough times passed — a couple of weeks there were a little rough — in part thanks to “writing as therapy” and the notes of support in return. Seems silly in retrospect, what do I have to complain about? But truthfully, it is a very restrictive, very isolated, very different kind of lifestyle than back home. It’s not for everybody. But we shall push through!

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