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.

Keepsakes

…before you, life was desolate – the past hardly worth remembering – and now, each moment a keepsake I can’t throw away …

John Geddes, A Familiar Rain

Easter in Egypt
Easter in Egypt

When we were kids my brother was in a judo championship in Queensland and our Dad accompanied him across the country to attend it. When they came home they brought some souvenirs of their visit. My little sister got a T-shirt that said, “Kid for rent. (Cheap).” I don’t remember what my T-shirt said but I know I loved it. My Dad and my brother had been to Queensland and this T-shirt was from there. I’ve been obsessed with having keepsakes from places I’ve visited and of experiences I’ve had ever since.

Some of these keepsakes are more controversial than others. No-one could complain, really, about the hand-painted Armenian and Palestinian pottery from Jerusalem. Or the Japanese doll that was a gift from my favourite student in Gifu prefecture, Japan. Or the fridge magnet that my sister bought for us the day we visited Annecy.

My favourite memento from Egypt, though, has caused a bit more of a stir. When M and I visited that country this time two years ago, we fell into that old tourist trap of paying a small fortune to ride camels around the pyramids. It was magical. At one point our guide, walking beside my camel, bent down and picked something up from the ground. He told me to look at it. “See the colour of this stone?” he said. “You can see the layers of pink and white. Now look at the top of that pyramid. See the one with just a bit of the alabaster left at the top? This is a piece of that alabaster. I want you to have it.”

He tried to pass it to me but I wouldn’t take it. “No! If everyone took home a piece of the pyramids there’d be nothing left,” I said. He argued that it was sitting on the ground, being trampled under the feet of an endless stream of horses and camels. It wasn’t like we’d pulled it off the pyramid.

“No,” I said, “I couldn’t possibly. It belongs here. I can’t take it.”

“I insist,” he said. “I want you to have it.”

So I took it. I wanted me to have it too.

When I told M’s family this story I felt the heat of their condemnation. I came to understand how Ian McEwan must have felt when he was criticised for apparently encouraging people to pick up stones from Chesil Beach. I didn’t mention that my accepting this gift made me part of the long history of theft of artefacts that has made the British Museum so great. I just looked at the piece of alabaster that sits on my desk and felt the usual quiet thrill that I have it. I’m just looking after it for Egypt. Perhaps I’ll take it back one day.

The keepsake that I have from the gorgeous experience of being in The Vagina Monologues is a dress. Our costume dress code was black and teal. Anyone who knows me could guess that I had the black pretty much covered – I’ve lived in a fairly consistent uniform of black for as long as I can remember – but the teal was a bit more challenging. So I went out and bought a teal dress. And every time I wear it from now on, it’s going to remind me of all the gorgeous black-and-teal clad women who surrounded me on those beautiful nights in a theatre in Geneva in March, 2014. They’re not so ancient as the pyramids, but have every bit as much grace and beauty and wonder.