On leaving Islamabad

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

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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.

 

An ode to a man much missed

I’d got used to the silence after you’d left to live in Islamabad. It had settled around me. I’d snuggled down into it. I’d occasionally interrupted it with friends, with endless episodes of favourite TV shows on Netflix, with phone conversations with family, with days spent at my desk working. I’d got used to the daily chats with you on Skype, you on the sofa in the quiet new home that next summer will explode with the sounds of me and our babies, and me in the flat in France that we’d so happily occupied together. I’d got used to cooking the meals for one, to sleeping alone, to waking up without you. I’d put a picture of you beside the bed, an indulgence I’d never needed when I could open my eyes and see the real thing.

But then you came home. Miraculously. Surprisingly. Gorgeously. You had two days of work in Geneva but hadn’t mentioned it to me. We’d spoken on Skype on Tuesday evening, then you’d packed your bags, got in a taxi to the airport and got on a plane to take you to Dubai, and another to deliver you to Geneva. Then a taxi brought you home to our door in Divonne. You rang the doorbell and I didn’t answer it – it was two o’clock in the afternoon and I was working, expecting no-one, still in my pajamas. So you came in. When I saw you I stood frozen to the spot for about five minutes. For about four hours I couldn’t actually believe that it was you. That you were there. But then I realised that the silence had evaporated. I didn’t need to snuggle into the silence anymore, when instead I could snuggle into you.

Before our babies were on board, we used to do stuff. We’d get out and explore whatever amazing world we happened to inhabit. We’d drive or walk for hours. I’d take thousands of photographs to document our experience. We’d visit and sightsee and soak up. But we don’t need to go out to experience amazing things now. All the amazing stuff is happening internally – inside our home and inside me. When you were here this weekend, we didn’t need to go out and feel the rush of cold wind on our faces on a hiking trip, when instead you could just sit on the sofa with your hand on my belly and feel the movements of our growing sons. We didn’t need to visit Geneva and hear the canons commemorating the Escalade, when instead we could just laugh out loud together and be filled with joy that the tiny ears of our babies are now developed enough to take that sound in.

I don’t miss the lovely stuff we used to do. It will all still be out there when we’ve safely delivered our gorgeous little aliens into the world and we can spend our time introducing them to its infinite wonders. It’s the small things that have become huge to me now – you wordlessly doing the few chores that you know I particularly hate having to do, or walking into the bathroom when I’m in the shower just to chat or to say something that will otherwise be forgotten. Just to keep the silence at bay.

But now it’s Sunday and you’re working in Islamabad again tomorrow, so today I drove you to the airport so you could get on a plane to take you to Dubai and another to deliver you to Islamabad. And then you’ll get in a car and drive to an office where people are expecting you, where no-one will stand frozen to the spot for five minutes, unable to believe that it’s actually you. That you’re actually there. And tomorrow afternoon we’ll speak on Skype, you sitting on the sofa in the new home that next summer will explode with the sounds of me and our babies, and me in the flat in France that we so happily occupied together.

For now, it’s late, and I’m going to bed alone, your picture propped up on the bedside table beside me. I feel our tiny aliens wriggling. And in your absence, I snuggle once again into the silence.

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.