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

IMG_9662

 

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.

Life! Oh, life!

If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

Woody Allen

Positive!

“M has a new job,” I said.

“I’m moving to Pakistan,” I said.

And the gods heard me, and they chortled.  “You think?”

And then I peed on a stick and I understood the reasons for their mirth.

“I’ll go anyway!” I said. “People have babies in Pakistan!”

And then the doctor did a scan. We listened to the baby’s heartbeat and I cried. And then he said, “Oh, but there are two!” We listened to the second baby’s heartbeat and I laughed for about ten minutes straight.

And the doctor said, “You’re going to be a 44-year-old woman giving birth to twins. You are NOT moving to Pakistan.”

I’m going to be a 44-year-old woman giving birth to twins! And the babies’ father is going to be living in Pakistan while I stay here in Geneva to have them! Who says the gods lack a sense of humour!

In the last of the four posts that I published in 2013 on the subject of infertility, I wrote:

“I’d thought that I was going to be a mother and I’ve done everything I possibly could to make that happen. But it didn’t, and now, barring some miraculous future event, it probably never will.”

Well, there seems to have been a miraculous future event. The miracle came in the form of modern medicine and a medical team with vast knowledge and immense skill, as well as a wealth of patience and understanding. It was fuelled by love and generosity and acceptance. It was paid for by those with the funds and prayed for by those with the faith. And if the funds and the faith and the tremendous good fortune continue to be supplied with such abundance, it will manifest itself next year in the form of two of the most hoped for, anticipated, loved (and presumably photographed) babies in the short history of homo sapiens.

The experience of sharing this news with our families has been like having a direct line into the source of all happiness. I’ve never felt so loved and supported, which is huge, given that I’ve always felt loved and supported. This is a screen grab that I took when Dad Skyped me back about ten minutes after the initial conversation in which I told him I was pregnant:

What a great day!

My sister Luli, who was sitting in a café when I called her with the news, went straight from the café to a hobby shop to buy wool, and has since started to knit a baby blanket for us, consciously casting a spell of love for the babies with each new stitch that she casts on.

My beautiful brother and I don’t speak on the phone very often but he called me as soon as Dad had shared the news with him. He said that in all the years that M and I and have been hoping for a baby and he has been trying to console us with the words, “You don’t need to have kids to be happy,” he knew he wasn’t speaking his complete truth, as he can’t imagine his life without the millions of joys that his two boys have brought him.

My sister Kalinka sobbed when I told her. She texted every day for days and days afterwards to see how me and the babies were doing. And she’s setting aside a little dress that was passed down to her daughter by my little sister’s little girl so that if I have a daughter, she can wear her cousins’ dress too.

My sister Pinky, hilariously recognising the enormity of the news for us and the fact that my quiet life of books and travel is over, kept repeating the words, “Fuckedy-fuckedy-fuck!” And that was before she knew we were having twins!

My little sister Coco started making immediate mental preparations for me and the babies to come and occupy the spare bedroom in the lovely new home that she and her family have just moved into. The cot that Dad made for his six babies to sleep in in the sixties and seventies and that has accommodated all of his eleven grandchildren since will take pride of place in the room.

When I was in The Vagina Monologues earlier this year and I delivered the piece about childbirth, one of the most poignant lines for me was the last one, “I was there in the room. I remember.”

It has even greater poignancy for me now. Because in April next year, if all goes according to the new plan…

I’ll be there. In the room.

And our lives will change, miraculously and forever.

Blog hop

A culture filled with bloggers thinks differently about politics or public affairs, if only because more have been forced through the discipline of showing in writing why A leads to B.

Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid

Quills

A number of years ago I was living alone in the big old house that I’d bought in England and I decided that it didn’t make sense to occupy all that space by myself. I wasn’t sure that I wanted someone to move in permanently so I searched for other solutions, and I found the perfect one in the form of the Digs List. Can you imagine anything more amazing? For a few weeks or a few months at a time, extraordinary people, mostly actors, came to share my house with me while they did their fantastic thing at the local theatres. And when they came home from the theatre I got to bask in some of their gorgeousness. And one of the most gorgeous of all was the amazing Vera Chok from beautifulbitchmonsteridiot.com, who kindly nominated me for this blog hop.

Vera is one of the most versatile, most prolific, most artistically ambitious (and I mean “ambitious” in the very best sense of the word) people that I’ve ever met. She acts, she writes, she sings, she plays the piano, she cooks, she dances. And she lives. She lives fantastically. She is a creator of beautiful things and a bringer-together of beautiful people. She is one of the reasons why I hope to live back in the UK again one day; if I’m there then I’ll be able to see some more of the amazing things she does.

But for the moment I am here, and I have to answer a few questions to meet the requirements of this blog hop. So here goes.

What are you working on?

At the moment I’m working on improving my ability to finish things. I’m very good at starting things. I’ve started a novel about the historical inhabitants of my house in Suffolk, England, inspired by its 168-year history of putting a roof over the head of some astonishing – and mostly single – women. I’ve started – and got some way towards finishing – a short story called The Laughter Shop. (I’m dying to know what happens to its main character so I must get on with that…). I’ve started a children’s book about a boy with a magic dictionary. Ooh, and just over a year ago, I started this blog, which I love for the fact that each post gives me a sense of completion even though the whole site will always be a work in progress. So I’m working on trying to take the wise writerly advice of the wise writer, Neil Gaiman, who said, “You have to finish things – that’s what you learn from. You learn by finishing things.” One day I’ll finish something and I’ll learn what he means.

I’m also working on trying to make my photography better. I’ve always been ever so slightly obsessed with taking photographs but now that my lovely man has furnished me with a good camera I have to try to take good photographs. So I’m learning on the job, the job being to document the lovely places I get to visit and trying to capture them as best I can. I’ve started selling some of my images as greetings cards and stuff on Redbubble, here.  (I’m told that they make great gifts!). I also want to make some pictures available to an online stock photo company so that they can be used, under license, by magazines, newspapers, bloggers and anyone else who needs images to add to their words. However the company that I’m interested in registering with requires that I provide them with ID which shows my nationality, residency visa and residential address. Now, given that I have an Australian passport, a Swiss residency visa, a permanent home in England, a temporary home in France and an address that I’m soon to move to Pakistan, this is proving more complicated that I’d have hoped! But it’s a project and it’s ongoing.

Ooh, and I’m working on a photobook  about my mother-in-law’s life so far which I’m hoping to present to her for a very special birthday she’s having later this year. (She wouldn’t thank me for telling you which one.)

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Hm, now that question kind of assumes that I know what the genre of my work actually is… In talking about “my work” here I guess I’m talking about my blog, and one thing I’ve been very keen to do with my blog is to avoid too much specificity. The blog is about my life as an expat, and given that I’ve been an expat for more years than I lived in my native country, that covers quite a few topics. I’ve written about feminism but I don’t want it to be a feminist blog. I’ve written about infertility but I don’t want it to be an infertility blog. I’ve written about personal stuff but I don’t want it to be a writing-as-personal-catharsis blog. Eugh, I really don’t want that.

I guess I could describe it as observational. I do and see stuff and describe what I’ve done and seen. To quote the fantastic Neil Gaiman again, “There will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you… but you are the only you.” I guess that’s how my work differs from others of its genre. It’s written by me.

Why do you create what you do?

You know that age-old question about what you’d save if your house was on fire? My answer has for a long time been my diaries. I don’t mean, “Dear Diary, Today I had another dull day at home” kind of diaries. I mean the tiny diaries that I’ve been keeping for many years now (I mean seriously tiny, so tiny that they drive my BFF to distraction, but I’ve always resisted her attempts to get me to write in bigger ones), which detail no more than where I’ve been on any given day, and with whom. I can spend hours looking through those diaries, reminiscing about times and places and people and events. They bring back so much that I’d otherwise forget.

I guess I’m writing this blog for the same reason. I’m planning on living a long, long life and having many adventures along the way. And just in case I don’t have anyone around to make me a photobook for my 90th birthday – ooh, sorry, mother-in-law, it slipped! – I’m making the book for myself as I go along. Only 47 years of blogging left until my blog reaches book form. Woohoo!

How does your creative process work?

At the moment I rather fear that it doesn’t! For me, as for many others I suspect, writing begets writing. (In fact I don’t just suspect that it works this way for others too. I just googled the expression “writing begets writing” and got 892,000 hits in 0.19 seconds). My problem at the moment is that taking photos doesn’t beget writing. It begets taking more photos. So I’m giving myself some space to concentrate on the photos (some of which you can see on my Flickr page here) and sometime soon – 2015 will be my year, I think – I shall find a happy balance between the two. And much writing and many photos will be begot.

Oh, and the other thing that I have to acknowledge about my creative process is that is that it works much, MUCH more efficiently if I have a deadline. In April, while I was doing the A to Z Challenge, I wrote 30 blog posts. Yep, that’s one a day, every day. And in the four months since April I’ve written precisely three posts, including this one. Someone give me a goddamn deadline already!

 

And now, to meet the other requirement of the blog hop, I get to tell you about a couple of lovely writer friends whose blogs I highly recommend you have a look at. Within weeks of arriving in Switzerland two years ago I found myself working as a reporter at a conference at the International Conference Centre in Geneva. And then I found myself chatting with Angie, the lovely Canadian reporter sitting next to me. And then I found that she’d become a great friend. And then I discovered that as well as writing, she also cooks and knits and sews and paints. Angie’s blog currently concentrates on the cooking but she’s thinking about expanding out to include her other creative pursuits too. Check her work out here at howtoeatstalebread.com.

My other nominee is someone I met at the place where I’ve met most of my favourite people in Switzerland – the Geneva International Book Club. The first time I heard Briony introduce herself to the group I knew she was smart and funny and I wanted her to keep attending. And she did – hooray! And then, joy of joys, she started writing a blog and the rest of the world could also appreciate how smart and funny she is, and also learn of the creative ways in which she’s making her life fun and memorable and worthwhile while simultaneously staving off her fearofthereaper. Be sure to check it out.

And now, dear people, my blog is hopped !

Thank you so much for reading.

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.

Pictures and peacocks

Taking pictures is savouring life intensely, every hundredth of a second.

Marc Riboud

Pride

Hey, I just remembered something exciting – I have a blog!

It seems that completing the April A to Z Challenge must have taken it out of me. I haven’t written a single word since 30 April. I’ve barely even looked at my blog. I haven’t even responded to some of the lovely comments that people kindly left, congratulating me on making it to the end. And a whole lot of messages and emails that gorgeous friends have sent to me in the last number of months remain unanswered.

Sixty days have passed since I composed the final fullstop of the 30,000 words that I wrote for my Vagina Monologues-inspired challenge, and now I suddenly feel compelled to write again. That means that I’ve needed one day’s recovery for every 500 words that I wrote… I can hardly call myself a writer with those sorts of statistics following me around!

I’m offering one final stat, though, to explain the mitigating circumstances behind my absence from the world of writing. Since I last posted on my blog I’ve taken about 3,000 photographs. And I even quite like one or two of them. I’ve started to frequently update my Flickr page and also to follow and be inspired by some amazing photographers on that forum. (Do you have a Flickr page? Please let me know so I can follow you too!) And I’ve been reading some great photography books, like the brilliantly named (and brilliant) Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs. I do. And I did. And I’m not taking great photographs yet but I’m working on it.

I’m going to ease back into this writing thing slowly… There are already 250 words on this page and I don’t have a day to spare for recovery! Instead I’ll show you some more pretty pictures of a peacock.

Here you go. Proud-looking fellow, isn’t he?

Fine feathered friend

And another one, with the object of his affections.

The object of his affections

Let’s see what Switzerland offers up for me to share with you tomorrow. I have high hopes.

Ooh, and just to let you know, I’m making my own greetings cards out of my photos these days. Let me know if you ever see anything here or on Flickr that you’d like to send to a loved one on a card and we’ll see what we can do.

Zeitgeist

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.

Abraham Lincoln

Gender Equality

Gender Equality

When I first went to see The Vagina Monologues in London about 15 years ago, everyone was talking about the play. It had gained massive popularity. But despite the fact that it was being performed to huge audiences in theatres throughout the world, it was still considered pretty out there.

The funny thing (and by “funny” I mean really, really depressing) is that when I told people that I was performing in the play last month I realised that popular perception is still pretty much the same now. I don’t think Eve Ensler would mind if she heard me saying that I wish the play was no longer of interest. I wish the issues she described in the Monologues had been resolved to such an extent that the play had become a bit of a yawn. Gender inequality? I want to hear people say. That’s so last century!

Things have arguably improved for women over the last few decades. One only needs to watch Mad Men to see that we’ve taken huge strides in gender equality in the workplace since the fifties (although I did once work in an office in Suffolk, England, which, as much as I loved it, bore considerable resemblance in many ways to those times!)

It’s very difficult to describe the zeitgeist of a period of time that you’re still living through. There’s so much going on at any one moment in history that all sorts of issues get blurred and shadowed, each by the other. When we look back on this decade in the 2030s or 2040s, we’ll no doubt think about financial crises, Middle Eastern conflict, governments spying on their own people, and global whistle blowers.

But I think we’ll also look back with gratitude on the beginning of the fourth wave of feminism. There’s a brilliant article here which details exactly what that looks like.

It should be pointed out that men need not fear this fourth wave. In fact they should embrace it. I’ve just found a Tumblr site, fantastically named MA’AM, for Men Against Arseholes and Misogyny, that lists Ten Ways Feminism Benefits Men. The whole point is to make things better for everyone.

At the The Vagina Monologues after party in Geneva last month, one of my fellow cast members introduced me to a friend of hers, a lovely young man who was interested in knowing my thoughts (probably as a member of his mother’s generation!) about feminism today. I told him that I think progress had pretty much plateaued during the nineties and noughties, but that I was excited about the massive upsurge in determination to make things better that I see now.

There is a rise in consciousness. And to give the last word to the woman to whose work I’ve dedicated this last month of writing, “When you bring consciousness to anything, things begin to shift.”