Don't Be So Damned Sure!02 Nov 2009
The best lesson for surviving as an expat I learned my first quarter... in fact, my first weeks at the University of Minnesota.
That lesson came early in the "Introduction to Theater" course taught by the legendary Arthur Ballet. My best friend Beth from high school was going to major in Theater, and even though I planned to major in International Relations, I had to take some Liberal Arts classes, so we took the class together. It was one of the most popular courses on campus, even though Prof. Ballet's health was poor and we often saw his lectures on video tape rather than live and in person.
As a history of theater, we started with ancient Greece, and one of Prof. Ballet's favorite plays was Oedipus The King", which he summed up in a single phrase: "Don't be so damned sure!" Don't ever assume that you're right, about anything! Anytime! Oedipus thought he was king of the world, but in fact he killed his father and married his mother. (In fact, even 30 years after I took the course, you can still find a Google result for Arthur Ballet "don't be so damned sure".)
For an expat, this means you have to be ready for anything. Anything, and everything, can be different than what you expect. In fact, you have to question what you expect. A trivial example: do you want to bake chocolate chip cookies in Germany? I'm sorry, you won't find chocolate chips in the grocery stores here. Or baking soda. Or brown sugar. Or even vanilla extract.
Even if baking is not your thing, the concept remains... you have to be ready for anything and eveything to be different. And after a while, you'll notice that most of the differences are superficial, and the most important things that humans have in common are the same.
To venture back to theater, another question raised by Professor Ballet is one he never answered in his introductory class. He mentioned a line that was the most profound in the history of theater, from "The Duchess of Malfi", as the Duchess is killed by her brother, he says “Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young.” One night, on our way home after heavy drinking, Beth and I had the answer... we looked at each other and knew we had the meaning that Prof. Ballet had hinted at. But the next morning, it was gone. And today, if we were to meet and one of us would start to say "Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle...", we would both remember we once had the answer, but it is now gone.