What I didn’t Know I Know

Home/Expat Thoughts/What I didn’t Know I Know

What I didn’t Know I Know

I haven’t felt the sweat or blinked away the dust or smelled the exhaust or spoken the language or eaten the food or worn the clothes or driven the roads or tasted the water or heard the call to prayer or swerved around the goats in over a year. So doing those things feels relatively new.
However, I know how to dress for the sweat and how to wipe away the dust. I also know people to call who can come help me wipe away the dust. I know how to cough and turn away behind an exhaust-puffing truck. I still know the language. I know how to request less oil (or no oil) in my food. I know how to tuck my dress up under the elastic waist of my underwear to create hips and to not trip. I know how to drive a stick, when to honk, how to go around a round-a-bout, and how to swerve to avoid goats, taxis, buses, and children at the same time. I didn’t even know I knew those things. I didn’t think about them.
These scenes feel as normal as a Minnesota lake.

But I guess I have spent nearly ten years learning how to live in Djibouti and those ten years have taught me a thing or two, have developed a friendship or two.

Lucy spent an entire day this week, as in 9 hours, with a Djiboutian friend who jumped up and down when we surprised her in the morning. Then they made plans to play again the next day. I knew how to drive to both her mother’s and her father’s houses.
I know which crackers taste the best in the grocery store and which grocery store sells which kinds of cheese.
I know that I can give the guard 25 franc and he will come back with a fresh baguette and I knew which bakery in town makes the best ones. I know to honk for him to open the gate and how to open it myself if he isn’t there.
I know what I would like a house helper to do and how I would like her to do it and what are appropriate wages.
I know where to run, what time of day to run, how it will feel, what people will say, and how to respond.
I know which radio station to listen to in the car and when it will play American news, east African news, special English news, and really bad American music.
I know people. When Tom and I and Lucy went to a store, a chorus of “Rooble, Rooble, Rooble! And his wife!” rose up all around us, like a cheering crowd. They wanted to shake our hands and find out where we had been. I think most people didn’t expect us to come back.
Isn’t this how everyone shops?
I know my husband is not only competent but really good at doing our paperwork to be here, our bills, and his job at the University and I know I can rely on him.
I know that it won’t be this hot in about a month.
I know that when I’m pressed for time I can go to the market when Lucy wants a new shiid (the Somali dress that you tuck up under your underwear) and buy a pre-made one from women walking with them hung over their arms like a coat closet, instead of waiting for a man to sew one on his foot-pedal sewing machine. I know how much they cost and where to park.
I know that there will be good days and bad days.
And I know that I never have to rejoice on the good days alone or struggle through the bad days alone.
What do you know that you didn’t know you knew?

By |September 5th, 2012|Categories: Expat Thoughts|4 Comments


  1. Melissa Ruth September 5, 2012 at 5:40 pm - Reply

    i have been living in spain for a year now. and feel the same way with things here in spain. where to go. what to buy. who to talk to to get stuff done. it’s a very powerful feeling, especially after not knowing any of that when we first moved here. it’s very exciting and i absolutely love this process!!

  2. shirley September 5, 2012 at 8:05 pm - Reply

    Rachel this is a brilliant and perfect description of having adjusted back to your normal. It’s putting a positive spin on what most of us would see as negative if one really thinks about your life reading between the lines. I’ve been in nearly all those situations both as a confused newbie and a seasoned pro. Life is do-able when one chooses to focus on the positive.

  3. Claire De Boer July 23, 2013 at 9:12 pm - Reply

    Rachel I love this – you evoke the smells, sounds and tastes of living in Djibouti so beautifully and in such a unique way. It’s amazing how what is “auto-pilot” for us is so completely foreign for others. Thanks for all the lovely details 🙂

  4. […] boasting. Stay humble and keep learning. Share your stories but not as the center of […]

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.