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Problems of the privileged

Kampala, Uganda

I remember once when my husband (then boyfriend), who had just come back from Kenya, sat listening to me patiently in NY as I went on and on about my problems. Oh, I don’t even remember what I was upset about. I am sure I didn’t get a job I really wanted, or a neighbor was being too noisy, or a friend and I had a horrible falling out, or perhaps I’d been sick and run down. He smiled at me and I asked him if he thought my problems were meaningless. This how he replied:

“No sweetheart, they are not meaningless to you. You must live in your world, stand squarely in your life, but your problems are problems of the privileged, remember that.”

Problems of the privileged.

Those words echo throughout me, pound against the inside of me daily.

It’s why, I think, so many people from my past don’t recognize me anymore. All their lips form the same words, “I’ve never seen you so happy. You seem so different.” And interestingly, I’ve never had more on my plate. I have a daughter to raise, a husband who travels, and no family or close friends around to help. I am changing careers and about to start school again full time. I am always tired and never seen to be able to do everything that needs to be done. What’s different is my perspective. It’s arguably the most important lesson I’ve learned by being an ex-pat and living all over the world. A lesson that started that day in NY, when my husband opened my eyes. Here’s what I see:

I met a Senegalese man the other day who asked me for directions. I didn’t recognize the name of the place he was looking for, so I asked to him to tell me what it was, as I know the neighborhood pretty well. He looked down sheepishly and said, “It’s a place that will feed you if you need to be fed.” I pointed him in the direction I thought I had seen such a place and asked him how he liked Rome, if he missed home. Yes, he missed home, was all he said.

Another person I’ve met is a woman who works at a café. Thirty-five and lovely, she’s not what you expect in an Italian with her sporting blond hair and blue-eyes. She hails from a small village up north and came to Rome seeking opportunity as well. She works six days a week, from 10 in the morning until just after midnight. She had a job in television, but couldn’t stomach the industry, so finds herself busing tables for a friend. She wants to have a child, but her salary is just too low and her husband isn’t working enough either and between the two of them they have no time to raise one anyway. For her the problems seem insurmountable.

Are her problems any less valid than his? Less real? Of course not. She’s looking at life through her own eyes and experiences and the culture that grew her. It’s all she knows. And he is living through his experience, walking the path laid out for him and hoping to divert it with strong will and a little luck.

I imagine it’s similar to those with a chronic illness who look upon those of us with health and feel impatience that we don’t wake every day and thank, whatever is we thank, for our good fortune.

Because we all have problems. It’s part of life. But I do remember always, as I was encouraged to do, and have learned by looking up instead of within, where mine fall on the scales.


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