I suddenly become a stay-at-home parent. It was four years ago, and my wife was presented with a fantastic career opportunity, in Luxembourg. My job, the thing that I’d done for two decades—editing books, mostly, and sometimes ghostwriting them—was not something I could do abroad. Not in English, anyway. Which was the only language I spoke.
So I started something else in Luxembourg, a job I’d never before done full-time: taking care of small children and a complicated household.
I no longer received a paycheck. I withdrew cash and paid bills through an account that was replenished entirely by my wife’s employer. I used those euros in supermarkets and farmers’ markets, in bakers and butchers, buying the things that a family needs.
I cooked and I cleaned. Our tiny washer-dryer combo took three hours to finish a load, and could accommodate just four pairs of children’s pants. So I did laundry without ceasing.
I played with Lego; our twin sons were four. I set up their watercolors, I cut their food, I meted out their discipline. I went to playgrounds and playdates and birthday parties. I sat on park benches, making small talk with other stay-at-home parents – all of them women – who I didn’t really know, exchanging stories about the people we used to be, before we came here, before we became people who did this.
Sometimes in my spare time, instead of French lessons or the gym, I’d go to a café with a laptop, writing a novel about this life. A domestic sort of story about a woman reinventing herself, about a marriage. But as fifty pages turned into a hundred, I had to admit that although my real life was somewhat exciting as well as partially boring, on paper it was almost entirely boring.
So I looked around for excitement to put in my book: private bankers or tax evaders, the European Union or the monarchy, adulterers or spies . . . .
In the end, The Expats is still about the themes I chose from the start: marriage and reinvention. But I deleted most of the passages about boring activities; it’s at least as boring to read about laundry as it is to do it. Instead I added some espionage, and then a large chunk of stolen money, plus an assortment of characters’ duplicities, not to mention the FBI and the CIA and Interpol, and for good measure a dubious gun bought from a Scottish pimp in the red-light district of Amsterdam . . . .
It’s still a book about real life, housework and all. Just a little bit more exciting.
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