Expat Life: Go Forth and Be Incompetent

by Miss Footloose

Urban window view in need of help

Feeling incompetent is a humbling experience, don’t you agree?  If you’re an expat or a traveler, or have been one, you know what I mean.  Now that I’ve just moved to Moldova, I’m back once again in that dreaded  incompetent zone.  All it  takes is to not know the language and wanting to buy bread or a screwdriver or curtain rods.

Curtain rods. Such riveting stuff.  Have a look at this picture.  Don’t you think the view from this little window needs a bit of obscuring with a frill of fabric? Or a plant?

Not that you care about my windows, but . . .

Where am I going with this?  To the story of another time when I went on a curtain rod expedition in Ramallah, Palestine, where I had no trouble at all feeling incompetent on a regular basis, since speaking Arabic was (is) not one of my few talents. So here’s the sorry tale.  (I feel like Jerry Seinfeld, making something out of nothing.  Unfortunately I am not as good, and neither am I making money with it.)

You Can’t Have it All

The shop is empty except for a man I guess to be in his sixties. He sits leisurely in the corner drinking a minuscule cup of Turkish coffee and after we exchange the standard greeting involving words like marhaba and kiffalik, he watches me calmly as I scrutinize his wares.

I search and search.

I’m on a quest to find tension rods to hang up curtains in our apartment here in Ramallah, Palestine.  Go to Home Depot, you say?  I think not.  No Home Depot, DIY sthops or facsimiles in Ramallah at this time.  But I did find this tiny shop with all sorts of curtain-type things and rods and bars and shower hooks. So, having rushed in full of joy and expectation, I’m now hoping to find among the available hardware a tension rod of some sort, so that after pointing it out to this man, I can use my hands and feet to explain what I need in terms of length and size.

I search and search.  He drinks his coffee and watches me.

Our apartment in Ramallah has thick stone walls, only covered with a thin layer of plaster and paint on the inside. Hanging pictures is a chore, an art, an impossibility. No nails, not even cement nails are willing entrants. Window treatments are heavy roll-down shades, installed on the outside and not given to looking cozy.

Our apartment in Ramallah: These stone walls don’t like nails or screws

The rooms look stark and cold with all that stone and no draperies of any sort, so I’ve decided to whimsy up the spaces with some light, airy curtains. Spring tension rods seem to be the solution for hanging them as they do not require the hammering of fixtures into the stone walls.

I search and search, but don’t see any tension rods.

It is very quiet in the shop, since I’m not speaking, not asking questions as any normal person would. I just don’t know what to say. It’s nerve-racking. It makes me think of Ralph Waldo Emerson. No, I don’t usually think of Ralph Waldo Emerson when I’m a nervous wreck, but I just happened to read a quotation of his this morning that goes like this: No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby–so helpless and so ridiculous.

So here I am, a big baby, helpless and ridiculous, looking for curtain rods. I should go home, study Arabic for seven years, and then come back and look for tension rods.

The man stands up from his chair and takes a step in my direction.

“What exactly is it you’re looking for?” he says in fluent American English.

I am so taken aback, I stare.

He laughs.

I swallow hard. “I need tension rods,” I say in a baby voice, “to hang up light curtains.” I don’t know what happened to my grownup voice. I swallow again.

He nods his understanding. “I don’t carry tension rods, except the big ones you use for shower curtains.”

Relieved as I am that I can speak English to the man, I am disappointed he doesn’t have what I want. I give a sigh of defeat. “I guess I’ll get them next time I’m in the States.” Whenever that might be.

“Home Depot,” he says.

“Are you American?” I ask.

Yes, he is. Passport carrying. His name is George and he begins to tell me his story, which is rather long so I’ll give you the nut-shell version: A Palestinian by birth, he’d come with his parents to the US as a young boy, gone to high school, become an American, married, had children. Then, after all that, his daughter married a West Bank Palestinian and moved to Ramallah. Finally, after retirement, George decided to come to Palestine too, open a shop, and here he is, back in the homeland, enjoying being grandpa to his grandchildren and hoping for a lasting peace.

He brews me a cup of thick cardamom-flavored coffee and we talk for a while, until a customer comes in and in rapid Arabic tells him exactly what she wants. I say goodbye and step out into the sunny street.

Feeling cheerful in spite of failure, I stop by Zabaneh grocery store to buy a bottle of Bethlehem wine. In the store I run into Laila. Laila is a new Palestinian friend who has taken me to the outdoor vegetable market, has shown me where to get my hair cut, and is now happy to see me because she wants to invite us to a traditional Palestinian dance performance of her children.

Ramallah Market Photo by Janice whang

After we chat for a while, in English, I stroll back home. Past the shwarma store and the sweet shop and some old men smoking water pipes and playing backgammon on the sidewalk. Up the hill, past kids doing daredevil things on their bikes, and through the open gate.

I climb the stairs to the apartment, watching the Samarian desert come into view as I move higher. The Lutheran church chimes the half hour as I open the door and go inside. Pink carpeting and a beautiful view greet me. I put the wine in the fridge.

So I was not at my competent best this afternoon. Never mind. I am happy. My exploration into town didn’t get me what I set out to find. Instead of curtain rods, I got a cup of coffee, a story, and an invitation.

The trick is, as Marcus Aurelius said, that thou should not think so much of what thou hast not, as of what thou hast.


Now that I live in Moldova I have to remind myself of Marcus Aurelius’ wisdom.  And put tension rods on my US shopping list.

* * *
It’s sometimes the stupid little things that cost you time an aggravation when you move abroad.  Tell me some of yours!

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Ashley D.

What a great story! This past weekend I went looking for a bicycle; After living in Germany for the past 12 days as the biggest baby of all (only knowing hello, thank you and I’m sorry). I decided that a bike would be very “central european” of me and one of the best ways to get aquainted with my new city. Little did I know there are about a million criteria for a bike in Germany (unlike the US) and after spending 2 hours choosing two tires, pedals and a helmet, then another 30 minutes seeking help to cram my… Read more »

What a lovely story!

I guess that not many people speak English in Moldova though…


Haha.. I had the same problem for my huge house with too many windows when we lived in Georgia! I just ended up to a bazaar with a picture of wooden curtain rods and rings and had the all custom made! The only problem I than had in the end was actually quite funny… The ends of the rods where glued on so I could not remove the ends to actually get to the rings! I hope you understand what I mean…. So than I had to find a creative seamstress who could make long curtains ( from cheeses cloth,… Read more »

I remember this wonderful story because I was shocked about how he spoke to you in fluent English.
Do young people speak English in Moldova? I would have thought so.


You know that Peru is exactly the same – brick walls that are impossible to put a nail in. (We drill a hole, insert a cork, then hammer the nail into the cork). And even though we have some big box “home depot” type stores now, there’s still NO tension curtain rods other than shower curtains. There are so many little things like that, things that I know would make life just a tiny touch easier for people, that aren’t available here. Of course, I used to think about those things all the time, but after seven years I can’t… Read more »

I have also been on so many futile quests in foreign countries, trying to find plastic basins, clothespins, two-sided tape, laundry racks, oregano, balsamic vinegar, or whatever. Sometimes it’s much easier to just give up and take what you can get. And it’s almost always an adventure — and a good story.

Such a great story, and such a colorful description of how difficult it can be to not know the language in another country. I also loved the Emerson quote, but I have to say that I disagree with him (and I think you would too?)—I think not knowing the language when you move to a country can make for an invaluable (albeit hectic and stressful) experience. It’s rare that a person gets to experience being completely helpless and humbled by his or her own stupidity—at least I know that’s how I feel after living a few weeks in France (knowing… Read more »

Michelloui | The American Resident

Nice story, in all it’s aspects–including the moral of the story (which may well be Marcus’ quote but it is also, ‘keep a shopping list for the visit back home’!).

Sweet story! It is true: living away from home can be challenging but it all depends on whether you see the glass half full or half empty, doesn’t it. My “challenges” as an Argie living in the NL are not even near your experiences in Moldavia or Palestine but I still find it sometimes hard not to feel like a helpless baby …

“What exactly are you looking for?” That gave me a good laugh.

I told my mother about this incident and she found it hilarious too. I share your tales with her, she loves to hear. I’ve been telling her about Moldova.

I don’t think you were being stupid. Of course, I have to say that because it’s how I shop even here 🙂 I look and look and look then finally, I ask.

And what are tension rods when they’re at home? I know they have something to do with curtains, but is it something like the thing we use to hang our ‘vitrage’ on?

What about duct tape or glue? Would that help?

Janet Abercrombie

The good news about language helplessness is that you learn humility. Quickly. Even in Australia (where I sort-of know the language), I look like a 6-year-old counting coins.

Have you figured out a way to keep Google accounts from defaulting to the language of residence? I have to ask my students to change the account from Cantonese to English. Does that happen to anyone else?


Judy — classic! I love the vision of you panto-miming what you need. I’ve done it many a time! AND I love the “never expect to come back with what you went out for, but you will get something of value.”

I’m smiling over my morning coffee as I read this. In Cairo I mimed a tensioned shower rod, complete with me throwing my arms out to the side and yelling “ba-doy-ing” to convey the spring action. The shop owner didn’t speak English, but he did get a smile and I got my shower rod 🙂

As you so rightly say, the first rule of expat shopping is never expect to come back with what you went out for, but you will get something of value.

What a lovely story! As expats, these are the moments that feed our souls. You wanted to whimsy up your apartment and were lucky enough to whimsy up your life instead — wonderful! (But I do hope you managed to get your hands on a curtain rod in the end.)

It doesn’t seem to matter how much Turkish we learn, we always seem to find ourselves in situations, like your curtain rod situation, where we haven’t got a clue how to go about asking for something. The hairdresser is always a fun challenge. ‘Just take a little bit off the back and give me a few layers.’ I’ll never know that in Turkish so instead, I take a photo in and say, ‘Can you cut it like that, please.’ 🙂

Hi dear Love your story and I think you are amazingly brave and strong to go to so much trouble to make it “gezellig” But you are dutch. Groetjes

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