Change is the only constant

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.

Lao Tzu

To everything, turn, turn, turn!
To everything, turn, turn, turn!

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?”

Yes!

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.

Wonderlust

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.

Ray Bradbury

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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!

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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…

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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.

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* Thanks, Dictionary.com

People are strange when you’re a stranger

When you grow up as one of six children, as I did, A Room of One’s Own is an unknowable imaginary land. It didn’t even occur to me to fantasise about having my own room when I was a kid; our household was made up of two adults, six kids and four bedrooms, so sharing was just the way it was. That doesn’t mean, of course, that my little sister and I didn’t have the odd territorial dispute. Sometimes these arguments culminated in the drawing of physical boundaries, a line of masking tape separating my half of the room from hers. Figuring out where the border should lie was sometimes tricky, and at times I’d find myself separated from my beloved bookshelves, and once even inconveniently distanced from the door.

This desire for a space of one’s own does not seem to go away as one enters adulthood. The expression “An Englishman’s home is his castle,” while raising uncomfortable gender issues and frequently lending itself to the right wing in conversations about the value of life versus property, summarises what seems to be a fairly universal desire to have a little piece of the earth for one’s own exclusive use.

This is all very well and very understandable – who doesn’t have a strong desire for a place to call home? – but the problems begin when the issues of belonging and ownership are extrapolated out beyond our own four walls to include the surrounding towns, territories and regions in which we might wish to raise a flag, and from which we might wish to exclude anyone but People Like Us.

In my day-to-day life here in rural France, there is absolutely no evidence of the historical animosity between the French and the English which is sometimes still played out or parodied in modern politics. I’m sure that M and I are probably known in our village as That Foreign Couple on the Hill, but I’ve never experienced any antagonism and I feel just as at home here as I could in any place where I don’t speak the language. That’s why I was shocked, when out on my One-Hour Daily Walk a few days ago, to see a piece of graffiti which would suggest that I’m not as welcome here as I’d previously supposed.

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(For the few people on the planet whose French is worse than mine,
this translates as Foreigner, you are not welcome.)

To say nothing of the considerably less-than-Banksy-esque artistic quality of this message, Tippexed onto an electricity pillar box, the sentiment behind the scrawl is one that is so far removed from the international nature of my current existence as to render it almost incomprehensible. I’m Australian, born of Dutch parents, and cohabit here in France with someone whose British nationality I also now share. The couple from whom we’re renting our house comprises a Japanese woman and her Italian husband. This weekend we have some friends coming around for a barbecue and without giving it too much thought I’d guess that the passports they’ll carry with them when they cross the Swiss-French border will be from at least eight different countries and no less than four continents. So I can’t even imagine the feats of origami it would take to fold my mind small enough to fit into the cranial cavity of someone for whom foreigners are so terrifying that they would choose to ban them from their land.

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(Danger of death with Le Pen as president? Yes, I expect there would be.)

Many people born and brought up in Australia tend to think of borders as fairly immutable things; when your home is “girt by sea”, as our national anthem so poetically puts it, it’s difficult to imagine how the outer limits of the land could be challenged. But borders do, of course, change all the time, and while some countries are champing at the bit to form strategic allegiances with others, there are also still regions for whom separation is the ultimate goal. Our house here in France is in the departément of Savoie, but when we cross the bridge to get to the nearest major town, Culoz, we suddenly find ourselves in the departément of Ain. Until recently, there was a white line drawn on the road at one end of the bridge, with Savoie written on one side and France on the other. It turns out that there is a small but significant group which seeks regional autonomy for Savoie and Haute-Savoie. There is also a party, the Ligue savoisienne, or Savoyan League, which supports the independence of Savoy from France.

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(Go to the website and click on the timeline to get an idea of some ways in which the world has changed. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/themes/maps-interactive/maps-in-time.htm)

Separatism is not always a bad thing – the benefit of hindsight has told divorced couples and countries alike that two becoming one is often a bad idea from the outset – and the word should certainly not, in every instance, be lumped together with more divisive (as well as derisive) concepts like racism and religious segregation. But when the desire for separation is fuelled by nothing more considered than the fear of one’s neighbours, then surely some time spent getting to know one another would be better than time spent daubing blobs of mindless xenophobia on infrequently accessed public utilities.

Central Europe is currently in the throes of a heat wave and I noticed, on my Daily Walk earlier, that the cows are sheltering beneath the trees to avoid the burning sun, the cats are refusing to come out of the shade and even the scarecrows seem reluctant to be Outstanding in Their Fields. I’m hoping that the bigots, too, are hidden somewhere in the shadows, and that by the time they come out into the sunshine again they’ll have thrown away their masking tape and learned to play nicely with their little sisters and their foreign friends. Until then, though, I can only feel sorry for them… There shall be no shrimps on the barbie for them this weekend.

Give us this day our daily walk

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

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I don’t know what they’ve been putting in the water in England lately but I’m not sure that I like it. It seems that all the people that I could previously rely upon to be slovenly sofa-dwellers like me have taken to…eugh, I can barely stand to say the word…running. In fact, it’s not just in England. My six-year-old niece in Australia did a 5k run for charity the other day. Six years old! Five kilometres! What the hell’s going on? Where is everyone suddenly getting their energy and motivation from?!

OK, I have to admit that I’m a little bit inspired by all the activity I’m seeing around me. I draw the line at running, mind – my two friends whose running shoes jogged them straight into the operating theatre for major knee surgery last year are proof enough to me that running is just not natural – but I guess I can be driven enough to walk. In fact I have few excuses not to. Job? Er…no. Kids? Uh-uh. Dangerous highway on my doorstep? Not so much. All right then. Walking it is.

I know that two walks do not a habit make, but having donned my hiking boots yesterday and today and found a perfect one-hour walking circuit that starts and ends at my front door, I’ve realised what a fool I’ve been to neglect this opportunity for the last six months. It’s gorgeous out there! And I feel great when I get home! Why didn’t I do this before?!

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When we lived in East Jerusalem, our lovely apartment was six kilometres from town, so all the things that we spent our leisure time doing required at least a brief stint behind the steering wheel. (I did occasionally go walking around where we lived but the requisite consideration of the modesty of my attire followed by the inevitable attention of locals curious about the obvious outsider meant that my strolls were rarely leisurely.) So when M got a new job in Geneva, I was determined that we’d live right in the thick of things, so all I’d have to do to get to where I wanted to go was step out of the front door and start walking. We had that for a while, too. For a gorgeous four months, we lived in a lovely apartment in Jonction, Geneva, (so named because it’s the point at which the Rhone and Arve Rivers meet), and our feet and the occasional tram took us to all the lovely places we wanted to visit. But then, of course, this house came up for rent and all my plans for inner-city living went up the 18th-century French chateau chimney in a majestic plume of smoke.

People who regularly indulge in this exercise thing often say that physical activity gives them the time and space to think. I’ve never really got that – all I used to think about on the rare occasions that I panted and sweated my way around the gym in Jerusalem was the fact that I couldn’t wait to go home – but my new Daily Walk might, it seems, be a step in the right cognitive direction. For example, it occurred to me as I walked today that all the things that I want to do are still on my doorstep, it’s just that the things that I want to do have changed. Nice, huh?

I keep watching as my friends keep running further and their running times on given distances improve. Have no such expectations of me, please. My One-Hour Daily Walk, for as long as the scenery around here remains so utterly breath-taking, will remain my One-Hour Daily Walk, and will continue to start and finish at my front door. What I can promise, however, is some pictures of the ever-changing but always beautiful scenery, and a bottle of wine on the finish line to anyone who’s prepared to come and join me as I go up the hills and down the dales of this gorgeous corner of rural France.

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There’s no place like homes

“This is your home. This isn’t nowhere. And it’s not dull.”

Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller

It took some time for me to appreciate it but the truth is that the tiny corner of the world that I grew up in is rather beautiful. With a population density of one person per square kilometre, Western Australia has plenty of space to roam around in. And if Perth, the nearest metropolis to my hometown is arguably the most remote city on Earth, then Northam, where I spent my childhood is… Well, let’s just say a bit on the quiet side. Its isolation, gorgeous weather and easy security made it a great place to grow up and, so I thought when I was seventeen, an even better place to leave.

I was twenty years old when I graduated and had my first chance to do any independent travel and I was desperately keen to experience culture shock, a novel concept in a country whose landmass is a whopping 7,617,930 square kilometres. If you get in a car at my childhood home and drive for two hours (or even two days), the landscape might change (or possibility not, depending on which direction you’ve driven in), but the people, language and culture will be pretty much indistinguishable from the place where you started. There’s no shortage of beautiful things to see, but the vast distances between places means that you need a lot of time to see them.

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(Thanks to mypostalcards.wordpress.com for this image.)

So one of the things that I love about where I live now, in the southeast of France, an hour’s drive from the Swiss border, is the proximity to any number of extraordinary places. If culture shock is your kick, you really don’t need to go too far for a fix, and there are concepts of language and nationality here that would have blown my tiny landlocked Australian country kid’s mind if someone had gazed into a crystal ball 30 years ago and told me where I’d be laying my hat at the age of 42. For example, when my partner and I drove down to the French Riviera for four days over Easter, the fastest way of getting there, from our starting point in France, was through Italy. And if that didn’t blow my mind surely the fact that we live in France but my partner works in Switzerland would have. And the thought that Switzerland has four national languages would have done for me.

Last Thursday was Ascension Day in France and Switzerland (you know, the day when Jesus rose body and soul into heaven; anyone who wants to discuss secularism at this point should be reminded that we got a national holiday out of it), so, as ever, we seized the opportunity to point the car towards somewhere new. (Well, new for us, that is – the place that we ended up in was, according to the signs on the buildings, already rather well developed in the middle of the sixteenth century, another concept which is almost unfathomable to this child of the New World.)

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Biel/Bienne, a town so bilingual they named it twice, prides itself on its linguistic prowess. All of the street signs are in both French and German, six per cent of the population speaks Italian, and to cater for the tourists, many shop owners will also be sure to make themselves understood in English. The first place in which we tested the veracity of these claims to multilingualism left us unconvinced, as the waiter was dumb with incomprehension when we ordered café au lait and pain au chocolat. But the town earned its stripes when the waiter in the restaurant where we had lunch welcomed us in French, took our order in English, spoke to the customers at the next table in German and bid us a fond farewell in Italian, all without breaking a sweat.

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Biel/Bienne is a beautiful three-hour drive away but happily for us there are also sights of historical and natural significance much closer to our doorstep. On Saturday we had some visitors to Ruffieux (I’ve been told that Canadians are like Australians but with culture and this couple are the living proof!) and we decided to show them one or two of the sights around our current home. The four of us jumped into our Golf and drove the ten minutes down to the Lac du Bourget, which is the largest freshwater lake in France, and then around its shores to the Abbaye d’Hautecombe.

Churches are, of course, nothing new to me – my partner says that the years of church-going I endured as a child earned me a black belt in Catholicism, though I’ve long since rescinded my claims to the title – but the Abbaye is something pretty special. With its origins in a religious community that can be dated back to 1101 and its claim to fame as the burial place of the great and good of the House of Savoy, the Abbaye’s history is almost as impressive as its position right on the shores of the lake. It’s no wonder that, after being overwhelmed by the beauty and history of this place, we had to retreat for a drink at O’Lac, in the shadows of the Chateau de Chatillon, before heading back to our humble abode for drinks in the view of the setting sun.

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I’m so fantastically glad that this little piece of France is kind enough to welcome us as temporary residents. But home is, of course, a relative concept. These days I still have the privilege, whenever I go back to Australia, of being able to visit not just the town that I grew up in, but also the very same house, as Dad remains steadfastly in the abode that he and Mum built to accommodate their growing brood in the sixties. My nieces and nephews still swim in the pool that I practically lived in as a child, and when I sit in Dad’s study showing him how to navigate his way around the Internet, the passageway outside of the room is still dimly illuminated by the nightlight that used to quell my fear of the dark when I saw it from my childhood bed.

Dad objects these days when I refer to Northam as home; fair enough, I guess, as I haven’t lived there for 25 years. But for as long as that nightlight continues to burn outside of my old bedroom door, Dad’s driveway will always remain a place that I’ll set my satnav to return to.

 

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