Sunday, March 04, 2012


One of the little luxuries that life abroad afords me is fabulous nail care. I was a loyal and frequent customer of a salon called Cocooning in Tana. Aside from the strange verb form of the name, it is a bit appropriate in another sense. Inside Cocooning are the real ex-pat and local elite wives of Antananarivo, getting their nails done or bringing their children in for a most unwanted haircut. There is the normal assortment of beauty magazines – Glamour, Marie Claire, Paris Match – and it’s clear and bright with fresh orchids accenting the chrome and white leather décor. In Tana, I got a pedicure almost every two weeks – why not, it was a ludicrous fraction of the price back home? I would walk over from my apartment on a Sunday afternoon and sit and have my feet massaged and primped and painted by a middle-aged Malagasy woman who had a spark of glamour and smoker’s cough. I would flip through the fashion magazines and pretend for a moment that there was realistic scenario on this planet in which I would actually consider picking up that $2000 purse on my next trip home.

One particular day a few months ago, I walked back home, up the drive past the chain link fence with roses stubbornly, defiantly pushing through the metal, pick my way across the world’s 7th most terrifying intersection and walked back down towards my gated community. I crossed the Jovenna petrol station parking lot and was as usual joined on the other side by the horde of street kids who walked in step for a few meters, madaming me, only to peel off when I proved impervious. After this I came out on the narrow road and try to simultaneously avoid garbage and speeding cars. I remember as I turned onto the street a mother and daughter with a small baby in tow turn kitty corner towards me from a the opposite cross street. They weren’t the poorest Tana has to offer, but they were bad enough off. They have nothing to do with the $2000 purse, I thought. It may as well not even exist.

This is the life of an expat. Regardless of whether we are talking missionary, aid worker, diplomat or someone who is working for a foreign company, we all have vestiges of this experience. Maybe many don’t experience the ultimate extremes of this, but there is usually this baffling dichotomy that they walk between daily when living in a developing country. They see this type of poverty daily, a good lot of them working hard to improve things, and often they take an evening to go for drinks at the one nice restaurant in town or a pedicure to keep their sanity.

This post isn't an apology for my pedicures. We all have treats and these just happen to be one that I can afford here and not so often at home. I was reminded of this scene in my head today and it got me thinking a bit. I walked down to the beach on this leisurely Sunday afternoon, because, after all, I said to myself, how often is the Indian Ocean just a 6 minute walk away? The beach is luxurious no matter where it is and the best part is, it’s free. This particular stretch of Indian Ocean was near-deserted with a handful of fishermen down on the jetty and three other foreign workers strolling in the distance. The sand is golden and fine and the waves roar impressively. I found that, similar to our annual vacation to Cannon Beach, I am glued to the waves, always watching to see if the next wave that starts can beat the last one for height and sound and spray.

As I walked back there was a beat-up old blue mini-van with some kids scampering around on the path up from the beach. They were much better off than the ones that madame me in Tana, and they were enjoying the afternoon at the beach as heartily as I was. For some reason I was struck by a moment of free luxury in the simplicity of it all.

I have given up wine for lent. It was a decision that was made retroactively (as I realised Lent started about 4 days earlier, but the Lord isn’t known to be picky about these things). Aside from the primary reason of foregoing something in order to enter into a deeper understanding of what was foregone for me, and to enter into the discipline it must have taken to stand there and take it all, there is another side-benefit that hinges on something I’ve been mulling over lately.

My people (as in, Canadians, westerners, young 20- and 30-somethings, redheads, Vancouverites, etc.) aren’t really known for the virtue of discipline and simplicity. Sure, I know many people who discipline their bodies, pushing them hard to excel in some sport or other, doing cockamamie things like sleeping in the snow or running for days on end. Those are all impressive and good, but they aren’t quite what I mean. We aren’t known for depriving ourselves of anything we truly, or even marginally, want. What’s more, I don’t think we’re known for being any more satisfied that any other segment of society. Now, I will certainly give the caveat that until I’ve had to scrounge for food in a rubbish heap, I probably can’t fully comment on what satisfies and what doesn’t. However, this post is not about getting into a debate on the lavish excess of the west and the virtue of the poor. As a good friend of mine once quoted, poverty isn’t itself a virtue.

But being content and satisfied with your gift is.

I gave up wine, because it’s something I genuinely enjoy – not in a desperate, can’t-function alcoholic way, but in a slow sip taken in front of a wide view that washes around your tongue at the end of a well-earned day way and because it’s my other little cheap luxury treat here. I can find fine South African and French wines that I would otherwise not get to taste back home; they are rich and satisfying, just like a nice foot massage during a pedicure. There is nothing inherently wrong with these treats. If you read Robert Ferrar Capon’s chapter on wine in The Supper of the Lamb you will know how heartily good they can be. The point is not what treat I picked to forego – it could have been any number of things – it’s what I do with it this time without the treat. The challenge of Lent is to dig my toes into the luxury that has been given me. It is to gain satisfaction not from the treats that life gives me, but the fact that I have been given life itself.

“For when I gaze at his crucifixion, I see my death indeed – but my death done! His death is the death of the selfish one, whom I called ugly and hated to look upon.
And resurrection is another me.”

-Walter Wangerin, “In Mirrors” in Bread and Wine.


At 12:12 p.m. , Blogger Stacey said...

Well said. It's helpful to have thoughtful expats, willing to communicate their experience to those of us who live in the comforts of home, and so can often be blind to those comforts. Appreciate your thoughts, and the brain that thinks them.

At 4:37 p.m. , Blogger Romalie Murphy said...

Beach = free luxury. So true. I always love your blog posts... I occasionally blog, in case you have spare time to read between your manicures and frolicking with lemurs.

At 4:38 p.m. , Blogger Romalie Murphy said...


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