Sarah Sheldon’s Big Deshishions: (5) Have not-so-great expectations

Travel, romance and adventure. Fly; find love; find yourself. These are the fictions that I’ve fed myself, says Sarah Sheldon. For greater good times, get real

Expect to be loved

Not so great expectations. Laura Eades & Elba Lloyd 2014

Sarah Sheldon writes:

Expectations sky high

One of my first ever memories is of the distant glittering lights of New York at night, from a plane window.

I must have been four or five, and we were going on a family holiday. One of my favourite books at that age was a Ladybird book, Topsy and Tim Go Flying.

A flight of fancy

Parents on the Ladybird website, perhaps with a little too much time on their hands, have since complained about the “cosy idealistic portrayal” of flying, hardly recognizing any of the procedures that air travellers today experience.

Topsy and Tim, for example, don’t have their marmite confiscated along with other liquids at security check-in, nor are they subjected to a full body scan.

Nor do they spend all their pocket money in Boots on miniature products which they know are a complete waste of money and then accidentally leave their boarding card at Boots, in their excitement at the Fat Face sale, causing them ultimately to miss their flight. For example.

Tray bon

My favourite bit in that book was the way that Topsy and Tim’s airline lunch came in interesting plastic trays where each piece of food had its own shaped space like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

On that flight to New York, the expectations generated by Topsy and Tim were in fact met. I did receive a tray with many different compartments! Life really is an individual portion of coconut-topped sponge pudding! I didn’t know, then, that my fantasies would gradually be dessicated by experience.

I should have had a clue though, because my attempt at copying another of Topsy and Tim’s activities – talking to the pilot and having a crack at flying the plane themselves– was less successful, ending in tears, a tantrum and being given half a valium.

Amorous in Israel

My first stint abroad was to Israel after I finished school. I went to work on a kibbutz. My expectations were dangerously high.

On the one hand, there was all that enlightenment to be gained through being part of a society dedicated to mutual aid and social justice; a socioeconomic system based on the principle of joint ownership of property, equality and cooperation of production, consumption and education.

On the other, there was hot hot sexy love. My parents had met on a kibbutz and got married soon after. Obviously, I too would meet my life partner there.

Tan and tone plan

The plan was that through working outside in the fields, picking oranges and pears, I would transform from a pasty, introspective Golden Girls addict to someone a bit thinner and browner, perhaps a bit like Michaela Strachan, the children’s TV presenter from Wacaday. And maybe my future love would shake my tree.

However, the kibbutz I had selected did not offer outdoor fruit picking work. Instead, it boasted an award-winning plastic bag factory.

A royal flop

I ended up in the ironing room with two grandmothers, Dana and Edith, who were obsessed by Princess Diana and Teflon.

Instead of travelling down the Nile with my future husband, I spent a weekend on a backpackers’ biblical tour in Jerusalem with Yoshi, a 26-year-old trainee orthodontist from Japan I met in the youth hostel, who told me I needed implants.

If all else fails, go to Paris

At the next opportunity I went to the romance capital of Europe, to be an au-pair and English teacher for a very wealthy family.

The father had a top job with Tropicana, the fruit juice company, and fifteen pairs of the same jean. The mother’s English vocabulary was actually better than mine which was a bit exposing at times, leaving me struggling to explain terms like “the dog’s bollocks”.

Living the dream is for other people

I lived in the attic of the block of flats along with other au pairs, and a senile woman who would wake me up in the middle of the night, knocking on my door to ask me what time she should get up in the morning. There I met Kristine, a Norwegian au pair who was already very tall, slim and blonde with perfect French.

Within literally days of being there, she had met a handsome French man, Patrique, on the metro and was completely living out my fantasy.

I was livid. She had a real drama. Not only would he wine and dine her, sending bouquets of flowers to our French class, but he was also a complete bastard to her, standing her up, disappearing for days on end, which she would tell me about, in tears, when we met up at Burger King.

I did my best to find my own bastard lover

Spending hours on the metro, trying to look helpless yet seductive even when I didn’t need to go anywhere. When it became clear that I was unable to reciprocate with similar stories of older men with bachelor pads and fitted kitchens, Kristine and I fell out of touch.

If I can’t find love, maybe I should find myself

Prague. Where some of my family is originally from. Again under the pretext of teaching English.

Again, expectations were high – cultural and linguistic fluency, assimilation, an understanding of where my grandparents had come from and what this might mean for my own identity.

I found a friend

I was lucky enough to end up living with Francis, another English teacher, probably the only teacher in the whole school who was there with a genuine interest in teaching rather than fleeing some kind of personal crisis or messy divorce. She was blonde and slim, but short, and looked like a glasses model.

Our landlord, Mr Boruvky took a real shine to her and would appear without warning in the flat, just to check that everything was working OK, sometimes in the middle of the night. He would also turn up to all of her classes – whether basic, intermediate, advanced or proficient. He wasn’t even enrolled at the school.

You don’t need popularity when you’re a genius

My hopes of picking up the language soon proved premature. Czech is really hard.

I religiously attended the weekly classes at the school which were taught by Zdenka (which she told us proudly means ‘a winding sheet’). She would spend the first twenty minutes apologising for the difficulty of the Czech language before teaching us how to say bananas in different tenses and drilling home key words like  “unfortunately” – bohužel – one of the few words I can remember along with No, which confusingly means Yes.

I wanted to find myself, but I felt lost

Everything seemed alien, even the products on the shelves in my local supermarket. I couldn’t return there after dropping a tub of yoghurt on the floor, which exploded all over the fur coat of the woman in front, and caused a trolley to skid out of control and wreak havoc in the gherkin and condiments section.

Luckily, Prague’s flagship Tesco store had just opened, and it became suddenly trendy to carry a plastic Tesco carrier bag – all the students had them. Yet there was nothing on the products to indicate they were Tescos – no basics range, no Tescos finest, no buy one get one free. Not even a club card.

Customer service was also different in Czech Tesco. Czescho. One time I tried to buy a bottle of Worcester sauce. The Czech check-out assistant tried to scan it. On the third failed attempt she glowered at me with more than a hint of menace and asked if I was sure that I really wanted it. To which I replied “Bohužel no”, making myself and Zdenka very proud.

Canada, Central America, Cricklewood

Each time it has become easier to live and work in a new place, as I have learnt to avoid imagining alternative lives for myself.

This was never more the case than when I went to Guatemala City for work, knowing absolutely nothing about it. The Lonely Planet lists as one of the five best things to do there, “leave” but I still managed to spend two and a half years there flourishing in the absence of anticipation.

I sometimes catch myself planning outdoor adventures, tinges of that old Michaela Strachan ideal. But I suppose these experiences have taught me that ultimately it is the ability to experience something for what it is rather than within a framework of preconceptions which proves most satisfying and less likely to result in disappointment. Even Michaela has her bad days.

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High ideals when you head off to a new location? Hit the jackpot with a holiday romance? Or just want to share your kibbutz/au pair tales? Click on the pale grey dot with a plus sign under the blogpost to open the comment thread.

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This post is part of a seriesin which comedian and journo Sarah Sheldon unravels the big unconscious decisions that have shaped her life experience, and replaces them with a more constructive outlook.

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