We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”
Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon
Inspired by Jay Antani’s The Leaving of Things
When you leave, you leave everything. Not just the place where your husband has worked for three years and you’ve once again played the role of expat wife – you leave everything.
You leave the cold stone floors of your apartment which you’ve covered with Afghan carpets so your babies wouldn’t hurt themselves when they were learning to crawl and walk.
You leave the British High Commission playgroup, where the mothers gathered around to help you change your screaming four-month-old babies when your babies’ reaction to new people and places was an assault on the senses.
You leave the terrace where your infant boys raced up and down on the bikes you gave them for their first birthday.
You leave the bedroom that you’d always planned to share with your husband, but which instead he’s slept in alone while you’ve tended to the all-night needs of your twin boys.
You leave the hundreds of plants on the terrace that have been nurtured by a housekeeper who loves them as much as you do, and who makes your kids smile by touching their little heads every time he walks past them.
You leave the club to which you were able to escape sometimes when your boys turned two and were finally happy to let you go off on your own occasionally.
You leave the nannies who’ve allowed your children to soak their beautiful shalwar kameez with the hose, just for the sheer joy of hearing them laugh, the same nannies who regularly cry at the thought of saying goodbye to your kids.
You leave the man who has cooked your meals for you, toning down the spices so that your toddlers could share your food, and cooking pork for you though he would never let it pass his own lips.
You leave the street where the tradesmen sit hopefully from one day to the next, displaying the tools of their trade and laughing with one another while silently praying that today someone might need them.
You leave the markets which are quiet in the heat of the day, but which you know are heaving with people when the hot sun descends and you’re safely tucked up at home with your babies, whose sleep is enabled by routine.
You leave the constant presence of the Marghalla Hills, which have always been a compass point to guide you home, and which you’ve occasionally ascended to enjoy an overview of your city.
You leave the thousands of strangers who’ve tweaked your boys’ cheeks and taken their photos and asked if they were twins and tried to pick them up if ever your back was turned.
You leave the women who’ve attended the playgroup you’ve hosted every week, whose warmth and openness and generosity of spirit have kept you sane, and whose children have grown from babies to infants to toddlers alongside yours.
You leave the kitchen where you’ve discovered for the first time in your life that you love baking, and where your two-year-olds recently stunned you by reciting the ingredients of banana cake when you asked for their help in making one.
You leave the woman who was first introduced to you as a neighbour, fellow Australian and wife of your husband’s colleague, and who became a firm friend, keeping you afloat with her humour and intelligence and shared enjoyment of the odd glass of wine.
You leave the bed in which you were occasionally able to sit quietly with the coffee your husband brought to you every morning, as you listened to the sounds of your boys playing with their dad before they waved him off to the office from the front window and played peekaboo with the guard.
You leave the surprisingly verdant streets that you walked with your camera, documenting the people and places as you saw them and feeling yourself morph slowly back into a semblance of the person you were before your babies were born.
You leave the person you have become and wonder about the person you’re about to turn into as your new home slowly but surely reveals its wondrous face.
Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.
A week ago today M was smiling as he walked through the front door after a day in the office. He had his headphones in his ears.
Kissing him hello, I asked, “Are you smiling at me or did you hear something funny on a podcast?”
“Oh no,” he said, “I’m smiling at you.”
I looked at him. He raised an eyebrow slightly. I said, “You’ve been offered a job.”
He said, “Yep.”
I said, “Where?”
He said, “Islamabad.”
And so, off to Pakistan we shall go.
M’s too modest to enjoy hearing me repeat the following story but it’s one that I enjoy telling, so sorry, M, look away now. The first time I introduced M to my colleagues in the job that I was doing when we met was at a broadcast exhibition that we were working at in Las Vegas. My colleagues were my Suffolk surrogate family, so their opinions on things like my new man and the lifestyle choices that came along with him counted. After dinner and a few drinks with M, my boss said that what he liked most about him was that while he could very easily hold his own in a conversation about all things cultural and political, he also gave the distinct impression that he could wrestle a crocodile before breakfast. That’s my man. And such a man, while doing a fantastic job and enjoying a lovely life of wine, freedom, food and frolicking in the hills on the French-Swiss border, really belongs out in the field. And while I don’t suppose there are many crocodiles in Islamabad, one doesn’t get much further afield than that, and I can already see his synapses firing in an altogether different way now that he’s contemplating being back out there.
And as for me… This is where I come into my own. This is where all the many goodbyes that I’ve ever said to the people that I love, and all the desire for new horizons, and all the optimistic anticipation of extraordinary adventures snowball together into something large and fast-moving enough to swallow up our beautiful life here and propel it onto another continent far, far away. (And I’m pretty good at packing boxes, too.)
The disadvantages of this lifestyle are manifold. I’m always away from my family. I constantly have to say goodbye to the amazing people who become my friends. I never speak the language of the place that I call home. And by the time I’ve started to get to grips with how a place works it’s time to move on to pastures less familiar. But there are also massive advantages. And one of those is that it makes life very, very long.
I assume that most people have read Joseph Heller’s brilliant satirical novel, Catch-22? One of my favourite characters is Yossarian’s friend Dunbar, who is “working hard at increasing his life span… by cultivating boredom.”
Heller writes, “Dunbar loved shooting skeet because he hated every minute of it and the time passed so slowly. He had figured out that a single hour on the skeet-shooting range with people like Havermeyer and Appleby could be worth as much as eleven-times-seventeen years.”
His friend Clevinger argues, “Maybe a long life does have to be filled with many unpleasant conditions if it’s to seem long. But in that event, who wants one?”
“I do,” Dunbar told him.
“Why?” Clevinger asked.
“What else is there?”
While I absolutely agree with Dunbar that since we only have one life we’d be foolish not to make it last as long as possible, experience has taught me that he’s going about it all wrong. For me life seems longest when I’m filling it with new places, extraordinary experiences, previously unimagined people and challenging new situations. Each year since I met M and moved to Jerusalem and then to Geneva and then to Ruffieux and then to Divonne has seemed to last at least three years… And I mean that in the nicest possible way! I want to stuff as many years as I possibly can into my years, and so far I’ve found no better way to do it than this. I may not know where I’m going to be living in two years from now, but I can be fairly confident that it’s going to be memorable.
One day when my lovely friend H came to visit M and I in the chateau that we happily inhabited in the French countryside, she said that the place really felt like home. Then we moved out of the chateau and into a bog-standard two-bedroom flat on the second floor of an ugly (but much more conveniently located) apartment building. And when H came to visit us here she said that this also feels like home. Her conclusion was that M and I have a home in one another. Thankfully, our home is portable. And from October 1st it will be located in an Islamabad suburb.
I hope H can visit us there too. And all the other beautiful people that I’ve met in France and Switzerland. And the amazing people that I met in Israel and Palestine. And all the people that I miss so much from my adopted homeland of England. And my friends and family in my native land of Australia. And anyone who might still remember me from back in the day in Japan. And whatever family I might still have in my ancestral homeland of Holland. And all the people that I’ve met along the way who’ve chosen new destinations, from Spain to New Zealand to Hong Kong, to make their own lives long and memorable.
Please come and stay. All the curries and rotis and rice you can eat are on me.
Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.
Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now
Shh! Don’t tell anyone but I’m taking a day off. A day off from hiking, a day off from taking pictures and a day off from my A to Z blogging theme. Ah, the self-indulgence is delicious!
The rain that greeted us when we opened the curtains this morning made the decision for us. We’ve been out there hiking and sightseeing for at least eight hours a day for the last four days and it’s been amazing. But what’s the point in heading up a mountain when all you’ll see is cloud? Today I’ve stayed in our hotel room with Easter eggs, TheGuardian, books and cups of tea and I’ve loved every second of it. M’s gone out for two walks and I’ve declined both invitations to join him. I even turned away the lady who came to clean our room so that I could stay comfortably tucked up in bed. Ah, the bliss!
This is the second post that I’ve written today as I had to catch up from a period of lagging behind on the daily blogging challenge, but now I’m even cheating on this… I’m not going to write but am putting up some pretty pictures instead.
It’s radical, I know. I’m a reprobate. But don’t be reproachful. Tomorrow I shall be renewed. And I shall try to restore my reputation.
But for today, I’m remembering that a picture tells a thousand words. So let me regale you with this random selection of photos from our R&R…
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language And next year’s words await another voice.
TS Eliot, Four Quartets
Although I’ve long since given up work for the much greater purpose of being by the side of a wonderful man called M, I make a point of getting up when he does. When we were living in the chateau our shared early mornings involved me driving him to the train station at 6am so that I could have the car for the rest of the day. That sleepy early morning drive isn’t necessary now that M’s daily commute starts with a bus from outside of our building, but I still love our ritual early morning cup of tea. Being able to get up to make it has involved a conscious shift in my circadian rhythms and the training of my night owl to emulate his early bird but it’s been worth the effort. It means that we go to bed at the same time and we start the day together. It makes me happy.
But the New Year has brought a problem. A proper, lovely first world problem. The problem is that I’m so ridiculously excited about the year ahead that I just can’t sleep. I’m up in the middle of night doing silly things like writing blog posts and sorting through the hundreds of photos I’m now in the daily habit of taking, while listening to music that I’m desperate to teach myself to play.
The year started well. After a beautiful Christmas in the UK catching up with much loved friends and family, M and I drove our car onto the ferry in Harwich and headed across to Holland. Amsterdam is currently the happy host to my gorgeous sister Lientje, and Dad has also set himself up in a little apartment there for three weeks so that he can spend some time in his hometown with his firstborn. (My old man is, after all, a Dutchman.) Seeing Dad for the second time in a year and Lientje for the third was miraculous. It’s not something that happens often when you live 13,941km (give or take a metre or two) from your family.
I’d never been in Amsterdam for New Year before and hadn’t really known what to expect, though a lovely Dutch woman in my French class had promised that I was in for a treat. In the afternoon of New Year’s Eve we followed the watery trail left by thousands of tourists before us and jumped aboard a canal tour. I really had no idea of how much I’d enjoy it. Getting a different perspective on the streets we’d walked and the houseboats we’d inhabited and the bars where we’d toasted our ancestors gave us a much better understanding of the city we all love so much. Despite being a born-and-bred Amsterdammer Dad had never done a canal tour before, so plugging in the headphones and tuning in to the Dutch audio guide gave him a fantastic historical insight into the city he used to cycle around as a boy. I, of course, saw most of the 100 interesting sights on the tour through the viewfinder of Santa’s greatest ever gift, but that in itself brought me perfect joy.
The early evening saw us ticking off another experience on Dad’s Never Done Before list. When I used to go to Amsterdam every year for work I always made a point of visiting the Srikandi Indonesian restaurant for their fantastic rijsttafel, and I was surprised and delighted when we were able to get a table for dinner on New Year’s Eve. Oh my God, I can still taste the lamb in aromatic soy sauce… Divine. I was able to pit my gluttony against Dad’s restraint and between the four of us we managed to make a respectable dent in the 14 delicious dishes they brought us. What I wouldn’t do for a Srikandi doggy bag right now…
We’d already finished dinner by about nine o’clock and we weren’t sure how best to fill the hours until the promised fireworks would fill the sky, nor where best to plant ourselves to watch them. We’d been told that if you’re not interested in joining the throngs of tourists in popular places like Dam Square or Leidesplein – and we weren’t – then one of Amsterdam’s many beautiful bridges would be a good place to be. Dad had bought me a tripod for Christmas (yes, I confess, I am indeed the most spoilt woman on the planet) and I was keen to set it up and take some photos of the display. We walked and walked, however, the rain, cold and fatigue slowly filtering into the four of us, and couldn’t find the perfect place to stand. So when, at 11:30, we rubbed our eyes twice and realised that the empty, available taxi before us was not in fact a mirage, we jumped into it and requested that it first drop Leintje at her apartment and then take Dad, M and I back to Dad’s.
We poured three Dutch gins and put the television on so that a Dutch TV show could count us down to midnight, and I made sure I had Skype on my phone so Leintje could rejoin our little party at the witching hour. We shouted along with the TV countdown – …drie, twee, een! – and that’s when the city exploded. It turns out that organised fireworks displays are not the Dutch way. No, these people want to party on their own terms, so every man, woman and cycling dog lights up their little own part of the Amsterdam sky. They take this stuff seriously. With Leintje watching the fireworks both at her place and across the ether with us on Skype, Dad, M and I went outside to join the party on the canal, and watched as all that private money was blown up and spread in beautiful colours across the cold skies of the brand new year.
The next day, after M had visited a sweet shop and bought enough triple salted Dutch licorice to see me through at least the first quarter of 2014, Dad and Leintje sang a Dutch song as they waved us off for the last little leg of our latest European adventure. We drove down as far as Luxembourg and saw enough of that little duchy to make us determined to head back there some time soon, then returned to our happy new little home in Divonne.
And it’s here that, in the last five days, my insomnia has taken hold. I still go to bed at the same time as M, and after reading a few pages of the Geneva International Book Club’s latest suggestion I even fall asleep for a couple of hours. But then my eyes spring open and my mind starts to swirl in anticipation of the great things this year promises to bring. I wonder about whether I should sign up for an intensive French course in Nyon or Geneva. I think about how best to capture the theme we’re currently exploring in Photography Club. I daydream about which destinations our travels will take us to as we continue to take advantage of our central European location. I plot blog posts and wonder about whether to post my short stories here or on some other platform. I contemplate whether most of the work I do in the immediate future will be paid work or volunteer. I listen to the steady breathing of the man who makes all these things possible for me, and I lie awake with the excitement of the adventure of the four years we’ve already shared and the many (I hope) we have ahead of us.
2013 was brilliant but in many ways gruelling. But now it’s put to bed and the year ahead is pregnant with possibility. That’ll do me. I can’t sleep but 2014 is out there and it’s ours. And I’m feeling good.
You’re driving overnight towards Calais and the leaves leap across the road ahead like frogs.
Then you keep driving and the wind picks up and the frogs grow in number and turn into swallows and swoop up and down before you, spiraling.
Then you keep driving and your phone bleeps and it’s a message from P&O saying the ferry service is suspended due to bad weather at Dover. You keep driving anyway, hoping to make it home to England for Christmas.
And then the swallows lose their wings and sprout tails and scuttle and squeak across the road in their hundreds, vicious and determined in their hunt.
And you wonder how your aged mother-in-law will take it when she arrives home from the hairdressers tomorrow and hears that you won’t be home for Christmas.
And you keep driving, thinking about the feast being prepared for you in a gorgeous home in Brighton, worrying about what John will do with the food he’s made when you’re not there to eat it.
And you can still see the glow of the bright lights in the night sky above Paris.
And Elbow nudges out LCD Sound System which slips into The XX.
And you keep driving, hopeful, watching for signs in the wildlife in the wind.
The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’ve always loved having people come to stay. Because I’ve spent my entire adult life living “away from home”, having visitors has always meant two things:
1) A chance to spend some proper time with people that I love but get to see far too infrequently.
2) An opportunity to show people around a place that they may not have visited before.
The older I get, the more I love playing hostess and tour guide. I decorate rooms. I draw up itineraries. I plan menus. I seem to have completely outgrown my old “let’s just book a flight and see what happens” holiday ways, as it seems to me now that if you just wait to see what happens, more often than not, nothing happens at all. I used to think that planning was the enemy of serendipity, but now I find that spontaneity arises more easily out of a loosely structured plan than out of a fog of optimistic indecision.
There are times when my planning works out well for me, and, I can only hope, for my guests. When M and I were living in Israel it was incredibly easy to show people a good time. After a trip to Masada, a dip in the Dead Sea, a day or two of discovering the historic sights and souks of the Old City of Jerusalem, and a walk along the sandy beaches of Tel Aviv, we’d suddenly find that a long weekend had passed with eventful (and sometimes even educational) ease.
There are other times when circumstances conspire to make me a less than relaxed hostess. Take the last year, for example. I would have thought, before moving into probably the biggest and most beautiful house that I’ll ever have the good fortune to inhabit, that welcoming guests into such an abode would be a doddle. And I’d have expected that living in the midst of the extraordinary beauty of Savoie would make it easy to decide where to take people. And that having easy access to some of the world’s finest food and wine would make catering for guests the biggest pleasure in the world.
Unfortunately it didn’t really work out that way and I can only apologise to the people who have come to stay with us in the Chateau de Collonges. Do you remember that scene in Groundhog Day where Phil and Rita built a snowman? In his frenzied desire to show what a fun-loving, likeable chap he is, Phil comes across as something of a weirdo. Let’s have some fun! he giggles. Come on! Ha, ha, ha, ha! Hey, here’s a humdinger over here! Hey! Wasn’t that great?!
I’ve been a bit like that.
Isn’t it beautiful?! Let’s go and see this amazing place! I know you’ve just flown from the other side of the world but forget about your jet lag! Stand right there to pose for a photo! No, not there! There! You love this fine French food I’ve found for you, don’t you? You don’t? But how could you not! It’s great! Yum! I love everything here! It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Ha, ha, ha! Aren’t we having fun?!
I blame the hormones. And the lack of alcohol. And I thank those of you who have visited from the bottom of my heart for saying that you’ve had a good time in spite of my frenzied regime of enforced fun.
Thankfully, there are also times when everything works like a charm in spite of my obsessive planning and feverish quest for amusement. Last weekend, when seven members of my family flew in from Inverness and Amsterdam to help M and I celebrate my birthday, was one of those times. Everything was so simple and so beautiful. My nephews, who are at ages where society might expect them to be sullen and withdrawn, were curious, interested, charming, intelligent and gracious. My niece, who at nearly-three could be forgiven the occasional temper tantrum, was cute beyond any reasonable expectations of cuteness. M and my brother-in-law coped valiantly with the inevitable emotional intensity of any gathering of my family that involves more than one person. And my siblings… Ah, they were my siblings. Having two of them around made me miss the other three even more intensely than I usually do, but apart from that, having them here, walking my Daily Walk and talking our incredible talks was the most fantastic of birthday gifts.
There were many perfect moments over the three days that they were here but two, I think, will stay in my memory forever. The first was when we happened upon a guy on the shores of Lake Annecy who makes a living out of blowing giant bubbles. Using two sticks, a bit of old rope and his own secret-recipe solution, he creates what my sister Luli gorgeously described as magical trees in kaleidoscopic bubbles. He’s made sticks to suit people of all sizes so everyone got to have a go, as M and I stood back and watched the smiles of our family and of every single casual passer-by. I’ve had over a week to think about it now and still I can’t think of a better way to earn a living than by making big bubbles and beautiful smiles. Thank you, bubble guy.
The other moment was during our lunch in Annecy. I’d planned to make confit de canard for dinner that night, so rather than having anything heavy for lunch, we just bought sandwiches from one of Annecy’s fantastic sandwich stands. We had planned to eat and walk, but somehow, without discussing it, all nine of us ended up stopping at various points along a bridge across one of the canals that give Annecy the nickname of Venice of the Alps.
It was cold, and all of us, apart from my unbelievably hardy Scottish nephews, were wrapped in coats, scarves and gloves against the chilly wind. I looked across from my vantage point on the bridge and saw eight people that I love, quietly eating their sandwiches and taking in the gorgeous sights of this historic town. My twelve-year-old nephew was feeding crumbs to the seagulls, which swooped over our heads, their wings like sails taking them across the water and on towards tourists with tastier treats. Occasionally a couple of us spoke. My sister Luli, also recognising the gorgeousness of the moment, at one point took a little video of the scene. But mostly we all just stood there. Quietly. Just being in this beautiful place. Eating our simple delicious sandwiches and watching some of the people we love being together and apart and cold and warm and quiet and contented.
I was very spoilt for my birthday and was given many gorgeous gifts. And of all them, that moment was the one that I’ll keep inside and enjoy forever.
I love travelling with M. For me a huge part of the enjoyment of any trip is in the anticipation of it – the booking of the flights and hotels, the research about things I’d like to see when I get there, the studying of the phrases I know I’ll never have the confidence to actually utter out loud – and in the reminiscence about the trip when I get home. And expectation and rumination are double the fun when you’re indulging in them with someone else who will be/was there. When M and I are travelling à deux, the fact that we can rely on each other to share the practical stuff enables us to relax and open our eyes and our minds to serendipity, the miraculous and the unexpected.
But sometimes (and I don’t think M will mind me saying this…) there’s nothing quite so invigorating as getting out there and seeing a bit of the world on your own.
I was reminded of this as I stood at the Europcar office at Bilbao Airport last night, having just arrived from Geneva.
Erm, the car you booked online is very, very small, said the woman at the counter. Are you sure you wouldn’t like something bigger for six euros extra per day?
No thanks, I answered. It’s just me and one piece of luggage so a small car is fine. (When I’m travelling with M this cost-saving measure doesn’t work – it brings a tear to the eye to watch a six-foot-six man trying to fold himself into the smallest of Spanish SEATs.) This was a solo adventure and a little car would be the perfect compact companion.
When I got out to the car I saw that not only was it as tiny as advertised, it was also a manual, something I hadn’t encountered in a while and have rarely experienced in a left-hand-drive vehicle. But after a few stern self-administered enjoinders to remember to use the clutch, I set the GPS for my destination in Logrono and (once I’d stopped bunny-hopping and found my way out of the car park), hit the highway.
It’s not a long drive from Bilbao to Logrono – a couple of hours at the outside – but I enjoyed every second of the drive, with the red-roofed houses flashing by, the car chugging, revs high and in second gear, through the hairpin turns into the mountains, and the churches sitting majestically on the landscape.
When I got to the hotel and asked about parking for the next few days, the receptionist asked what kind of car I was driving. Why? I wondered. Is there some sort of quality threshold below which they won’t stoop? I mumbled something about driving a SEAT and the receptionist said, Oh, that’s OK then – it will fit in the lift. Not something I’d expected – having to drive the car into an elevator and wind the window down to press the button marked -2 – but then that’s what travelling is all about, isn’t it? Dealing with the unexpected?
Another thing I hadn’t expected was that I’d get lost this morning on the 20-minute walk from my hotel – close to the apartment we stayed in last time we were here – to the office where I had an appointment, which I’d visited a couple of times before. It was supposed to be a 20-minute walk but I left the hotel early, determined to take some photos along the way. (M is infinitely patient with my obsession with taking photographs but I still always feel guilty about inducing chronic boredom in a companion.) I ambled out of the hotel thinking that I was bound to recognise things along the way. When after 20 minutes I’d recognised absolutely nothing I thought I’d better start taking the need for navigation seriously. I consulted a map – not a forte of mine and a task I’m always happier to delegate – and was shocked to see just how far I’d managed to stray off the necessary path. But after that I concentrated and thumbed the map like a pro, and the sense of achievement I felt when I got to where I was going was something that only those with similar topographical disorientation will appreciate.
When I was ushered into the waiting room and instructed to take a seat (not a SEAT – that was yesterday), I noticed that the French band Nouvelle Vague’s cover of Echo and the Bunnymen’s brilliant The Killing Moon was playing. I love Nouvelle Vague and it was a perfect soundtrack for my mood but I knew that if M had been there he’d have struggled to stay in his (lower-case) seat, so unbearable does he find pared-down bossa nova beats on classic songs. Without him sitting beside me dissing the music, I was free to listen without prejudice (something that I can’t necessarily do, I must admit, when I listen to the man who coined that phrase), and await my appointment with a sense of calm satisfaction.
I wish M could be here – I really do and he knows it’s true – but since he has no choice but to be at work while I’m here in Spain I have no choice but to get on with the tasks of going it alone and getting some enjoyment out of it. And who knows what sort of Nouvelle Vague I’ll ride with the Spanish Touring Car Company tomorrow…
Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.
In La Chautagne, the area of south-east France that M and I currently inhabit, the weather isn’t so much a talking point as a cast of characters. In the last nine months I’ve had a brief introduction to all of them and I’ve been looking forward to getting to know them all better, to seeing how their temperaments might change from one year to the next and how that would alter their interactions with one another. But just as I make the reluctant transition from shorts and Birkenstocks to hiking boots and a Barbour jacket, and the landscape swaps its summer greens for the rustic oranges and reds of autumn, M and I have decided to pack up and move again.
In the line of work that M’s been in for the past decade, he’s always had to live in the accommodation that’s been provided for him, and that accommodation has always been in cities. So when we had a chance, on this mission, to put a roof over our own heads, we chose a big old roof in the French countryside. But man there are some drawbacks to living how the other half live! Yes the house that we’re renting is huge and beautiful and yes the countryside around it is spectacular (it’s amazing how much more bang you can get for your buck when you move away from the city) but it’s in the middle of nowhere and much to my own shock and amazement, I actually really miss having other people around!
When we recently scoped out a possible new hometown and spoke with a potential new landlord, New Landlord told us about the highlights of the environs and asked if we’d seen them.
Have you been to the lake? he asked.
Not yet, we answered.
Ah, you have to see the lake! he said. There are people running and people swimming and people walking with their pets and…
There are people?! I responded? Brilliant! When can we move in?
And so we’ll be downsizing, erm, rather a lot. Our new home will be a third the size of our current one, we’ll have neighbours upstairs and down, our outdoor space will be measured in centimetres rather than acres and we’ll have to buy all our own furniture… And I can’t wait.
There are actually a number of practical reasons for our planned departure from the wilderness, not least being the fact that M currently has a one-hour-and-forty-minute commute into the office each morning, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there might be more to it than that for both of us. If I’m totally honest I fear that we might both have become infected with wonderlust…
It’s no secret that wanderlust, our new condition’s close cousin, got into our veins a long time ago. I’m sure that what my Mum used to describe as growing pains when I was a kid was actually the gnawing ache for distant places that as an adult I’ve been more easily able to recognise, articulate and remedy. And M no doubt caught the affliction on one of the many trips he did as a child to the far-flung places where his Dad worked for the UN.
But if wonder is a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable and lust is an overwhelming desire or craving,* then given the symptoms, I am self-diagnosing the lesser-known condition of wonderlust. The insatiable desire that both M and I have to see as much of the world’s gorgeousness as we possibly can during our short stint on the planet only becomes stronger as we slip inevitably closer to the time when we’ll shrug off this mortal coil, and so we have to cram in as much of the unfamiliar and inexplicable as we can.
I’ve read in several places recently that some sharks, including great whites, have to keep moving forward to stay alive, and there’s part of me, I think, that identifies. While the idea of perpetual motion is utterly exhausting and in some ways I’d love to just create a home and stay there, I fear that wonderlust would overwhelm me if I tried to stay in one place for too long, however much I might love the place and the people in it.
And so for now, as I count down towards the end of the three-month notice period we’ve given on the rental of our current home, I’ll start wallowing instead in that other affliction of the geographically restless – nostalgia for a home you’ve loved and will never live in again.
A man travels the world over in search of what he needs
and returns home to find it.
George Augustus Moore, The Brook Kerith
My dad’s more of a philosopher than a scientist but even so it seems that he may have found a way of avoiding jet lag. To ensure that you’ll hit the ground running after a 24-hour journey across the world, all you have to do is emigrate from your homeland, live in a foreign country for 60 years, learn a new language, raise six kids and reluctantly retire. Then 60 years later when you fly back to the place where it all began, you’ll be so full of joy at being back in your mother country that the concept of jet lag won’t even occur to you, and you’ll spend a week running around the country with the energy of a man a third of your age.
OK, so the evidence may be apocryphal but that’s the way it worked for Dad when he flew in from Australia last week to spend four days in his hometown of Amsterdam and then travel south to see a live performance by his favourite musician in his hometown of Maastricht.
Last Monday morning at 6:00, I was waiting at the arrivals gate for Dad’s flight to come in from Perth via Kuala Lumpur, having myself flown in from Geneva the night before. This was to be the first time I’d seen Dad since I’d spent a month with him in Australia after the sudden death of his second wife eighteen months earlier. I knew that he was a little nervous about travelling alone so I was not just looking forward to seeing him but also anxious to make sure that he was OK after the long journey.
Passengers coming out at Arrivals 2 could exit from one of two doors, so I was standing back a little to ensure that I had a good view of both when a man approached and spoke to me in Dutch. Embarrassed as always about my linguistic incompetence I confessed that I don’t speak Dutch, at which point he seamlessly switched to English and said, I hope you don’t mind but I’ve been watching you since you were sitting over at that café earlier. Your face is so full of love, anticipation and excitement, I just had to come over and ask who it is that you’re waiting for. They’re very lucky to be so well loved.
Soon the man’s wife arrived, as did one very much loved Old Man, and I was relieved to hear that all Dad needed to recover from the flight was a nicotine fix. As we headed outside Dad filled me in on the details of his journey and I realised that I should never have had a moment’s concern about him travelling without a companion; a man of Dad’s charm and chattiness will never travel alone. People had gone out of their way to help him along the journey, showing him to his connecting flight and waiting with him as he collected his luggage at his final destination. Ah yes, I remembered, people are kind.
Once the fix was in we took a train into Amsterdam Centraal and then a taxi to the houseboat I’d got the keys for the night before. The taxi driver entered the one-way street on one side of our canal, the Prinsengracht, and was about to cross the bridge to go back the other way on the side of our houseboat, when Dad joked to him that he could just let us out there and we’d swim across. OK! said the driver, slamming on the brakes and waiting for us to get out. Ah yes, I thought, that Dutch sense of humour! I remember it now!
I’d thought that Dad might be keen to get some rest after his epic journey across the world but the first thing he wanted to do when we got to the houseboat was unpack a gift he’d made for me and carted all the way from Australia. When we were kids, Mum and Dad had a nativity set that they’d set up every year in the fireplace of the house that we all grew up in, the house where Dad still lives now. (By some amazing coincidence of the orientation of the earth, it’s only at Christmas time that a small, rectangular shaft of sunlight shines down the chimney each year and falls directly onto the little baby Jesus in the centre of the scene. To six little Aussie kids in the seventies that seemed like something of a miracle.)
Now that Dad’s finally given in to the joys of retirement one of his hobbies is making nativity sets reminiscent of that one that we all loved as kids. I knew that he was making one for me and I also knew that he was going to the trouble of making it flat-pack so he could carry it in his suitcase. What I didn’t know was that he’d based the structure of my nativity set on the photographs he’d seen of the house that M and I are renting in France. Within minutes of our arrival on the houseboat, Dad had constructed an instantly recognisable Petit Chateau. We left it set up on the kitchen table for the four days we were there in Amsterdam, so that every time we got home to our little houseboat in Holland I also got home to my little house in France.
Once the Petit Chateau was constructed, Dad was keen to get out and soak up some of the vibe of his old hometown. Within minutes of stepping off our houseboat we’d seen the famous Skinny Bridge and stumbled upon the De Magere Brug café-restaurant, which immediately became our local. It may only have been ten o’clock in the morning in Amsterdam but Dad was on Perth time and four o’clock in the afternoon was certainly not too early for his first Dutch gin of the day! It was also his first proper opportunity on this trip to chat with people in his mother tongue; at this little café and in every place we visited in the days that followed, I watched as Dad’s town and its people re-embraced him as one of their own, laughing with him and enveloping him in a warmth and solidarity that’s surely reserved for a returning prodigal son.
One of our first intended ports of call after that liquid sustenance was the street that Dad’s family had lived on until they commenced the five-week-long boat journey that would lead to a lifetime’s stay in Australia in 1952. Dad remembered from his childhood that we could take a No. 13 tram from somewhere near Dam Square. When we looked around for a while and couldn’t see a tram No. 13 Dad started to wonder whether his 60-year-old memories might be muddled, so we got on another tram going vaguely in the right direction. Dad rapidly realised that we weren’t heading back to his old haunts, however, and after a long walk and a short journey on a metro train we were eventually led back to the correct tram – the No. 13 – which took us right to Dad’s old door.
After Dad and I had spent four beautiful days in Amsterdam, the holiday got even better when one of my four gorgeous sisters flew in to join us from her home in Inverness. One of the first things she commented on was that the woman sitting at the table behind us in the airport café looked exactly like Dad’s sister. It was true; everyone in Amsterdam could easily have passed as one of my sisters, my brother, an aunt, uncle or grandparent. The twisted diphthongs and guttural consonants of the Dutch language were a strange and beautiful music to our ears too, reminding us as they did of our childhood.
When my sister and I checked Dad into his room near the Vrijthof Square in Maastricht, we sat around chatting and at one point got onto the subject of passports. I became a British citizen about four years ago but haven’t got around to getting my British passport yet so I still travel on an Australian one, and I also have a Swiss Carte de Legitimation. Dad also has an Australian passport, having decided just before his fifth child was born in 1970 (me, as it turns out), that he should be naturalised Australian to avoid being dragged away from his family in the (however unlikely) event that war should break out in Europe. And my sister, having been born to a pre-naturalisation Dutch father, has been able to claim on that heritage to get a Dutch passport. The irony is that Dad, a fluent Dutch speaker and the most Dutch man you’ll ever meet, is no longer able to get one of those, having renounced his citizenship all those years ago, although I have no doubt that with a few quiet words and a joke or two in the right ear Dad could manage to rectify that.
My now Dutch-Scottish-Aussie sister, (let’s call her Kalinka here, as Dad does), has decided that there’s something other than a nativity set that she’d like to have created for her in Dad’s wood-making workshop. Just as we were leaving Maastricht on our last morning in the Netherlands, she saw some ornamental Amsterdam houses in a shop window, and realised that there could be no more fitting gift from Dad than a symbol of his beloved homeland. She put in her request to Dad and he assures her that when he gets back to Australia her wish will be granted.
I made a wish before I left the Netherlands too, though I’m not sure who will ever be in a position to grant it. My wish is that when I return to my hometown of Northam in 35 years from now, which will be 60 years since I first left, I’ll be welcomed back with the same warmth, joy and enthusiasm that Amsterdam offered to my Dad during our wonderful stay there last week. I think to have any chance of this wish ever being granted I’ll first have to ask Dad for some charm lessons… Oh, well. Happily I have a few years to work on it.