Stranger In A Strange Land

It takes me by surprise, every time. I can be driving up the hill towards my house – the house – or staring out of my back window. I can be crossing the unmade, pot-holey road between my neighbour’s house and my own, invited – as I was yesterday – for a coffee. Even after seven – nearly eight – years in this village-at-the-end-of-the-world, I can get this feeling of unfamiliarity. I am not really here, something inside my head is saying. Any moment now I will find myself, as if by magic, in the place I actually inhabit, living the life I am actually living.

I am not here, the voice says. I am actually somewhere else, living a completely different life. I do not look like this. My name is familiar – and yet different – I am well, I am happy, I am where I should have been for the last seven – nearly eight – years and

I have never been here.

This, here, is an illusion.

What’s that called, psychologically-speaking. Alienation? Anomie? Ontological Insecurity? And what might be its cause. Something dire, I’ll be bound.

I typed it into Google and got Mumsnet, and Mumsnet, predictably, completely misunderstood the nature of my query. Back and forth these Mumsies kept assuming I meant “not being satisfied with what I’ve got” and quoting endlessly at one another some old body by the name of Joseph Campbell:

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to live the life we have waiting for us.”

But that wasn’t what I meant, smug Mumsies! It’s some sort of existential angst, not a vague conviction that I landed on earth with the intention of being a millionaire/ess. I mean, I know all about lemons and lemonade. I have made so much lemonade out of my manky old lemons, honestly.

It’s more a feeling that any minute now I am going to wake up. Except I don’t. I am a stranger in a strange land.

Which got me wondering where I heard that phrase, and I remembered reading a very good sci-fi novel with that title, by Robert A Heinlen. 1961, he wrote it. And having remembered it, I’ll have to read it again, forthwith. Or rather she will – the version of me that’s inexplicably here, as well as being wherever else she is.

Now I discover that Robert A Heinlen was quoting someone else – The Bible. It’s in Exodus 2:22 and it’s about Moses and his wife Zipporah – or Tziporah – which means “bird”.

And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for, he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

And then, of course, I had to look up Gershom, for why should being called Gershom have anything to do with the case? And I find that in Biblical Hebrew, Gershom means Stranger There or Stranger Is His Name or Exile, Expelled.

So now you know.

And I know.

But who, exactly – am I?

Indeed…

I have been pondering the safest answer to any possible remark, comment or question during the hyper-sensitive next six months in this Disunited Kingdom of ours. I have a few favourites. This one, from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In:

very interesting.jpgVerrrry interesting…

The only trouble, what with the fake German accent and all, is that you might be seen as taking the Michael. And you’d have to remember not to add the … but also shtupid .

I love Spock’s Fascinating! This is a good one because if you can only say it with a straight face no one can tell whether you are fascinated by what the other person has just said, fascinated that they should have been so shtupid  as to come out with it in the first place or fascinated by their weird human physiognomy.

You can’t really say Exactly or Absolutely because both imply an enthusiastic agreement with the speaker which you may be far from feeling. You might try the psychotherapist’s interrogative Uh-huh? But how long are you going to be able to fend them off with that?

I personally favour Teal’cs grave Indeed. Preferably with the head inclining slightly to the left. I think I might get away with Indeed.

One of the things that attracted my younger self to Ex was that he was strong. He always said exactly what he thought. Unlike me, he did not scrabble around desperately trying to fit in: he did not temporise, he did not simper and he did not squirm. He treated all alike – from the little autistic boy on the railway to the multi-millionaire client in his mansion by the Thames – all were addressed in exactly the same vague, lofty yet booming tone of voice. When he started speaking everyone else in the room stopped – not always instantly, but they stopped. I often felt Moses would have spoken thus, on coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments. And he seemed to get away with it.

I remember we once went out to Canada to visit my sister, and almost immediately, whilst still exhausted from the journey, were inveigled into Trivial Pursuit evenings with dips and carrot croutons, crudités or whatever those little veggie stick things are. (Playing by American rules, we were at a loss most of the time, since most of the questions were about baseball stars and presidents we had never heard of.) We were overwhelmed with good-neighbourliness and extreme hospitality. We were asked how many children we had – oh dear – none? – and what church we belonged to – church? – and a whole lot of other stuff we didn’t have satisfactory answers for. We were confused, jet-lagged and culture-shocked.

I squirmed and simpered whilst praying to the God I had never been interrogated about before that I might please become invisible or fall through a trap-door – or that at least somebody could sneak me an easy-peasy instruction leaflet for this unfamiliar lifestyle/version of the English language. But Ex continued to be resolutely and monumentally Ex. Asked what he thought of Canadian houses, which in that part of Ontario at least seemed to be huge, luxurious and timber-built, he replied that they reminded him of Glorified Garden Sheds.

Ohhhhh no, I was thinking whilst trying not to catch the eye of anybody in particular… but the conversation went on, just as before, without so much as a sharp intake of breath or an infinitesimally awkward pause.

Ex was just Ex. Whether he bewildered or impressed people into not being offended I don’t know. No doubt right now he is uttering the most appallingly nuts-and-bolts tactless statements about the European Union, people who voted this way or that, foreigners, politicians…

And no doubt everyone is hanging on his every word. Fascinated. Indeed.

 

Featured Image: Teal’c from Stargate