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.

Travel

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It

onebillionrising.org
onebillionrising.org

One of the best things about having a vaguely itinerant lifestyle is the fact that you get to meet so many extraordinary people from all over the world. Last night I had dinner with three lovely friends, one of whom was from New Zealand, one from Ireland and the other from the US. Our lovely English friend was up to her neck in work and wasn’t able to join us, but if she’d been there we would have represented five English-speaking nations. And the fact that we were all English-speaking made ours quite an unusual gathering for Geneva, where international organisations attract people from every possible ethnic background.

Last night our Irish friend reminded me of a story that I’d told her once before. In 2001 I’d been living abroad for about ten years and decided that it was time to make up my mind, once and for all, where I wanted to live on a permanent basis. I put my stuff in storage in London and landed on the doorstep of my fantastically obliging little sister in Perth, Western Australia, and stayed with her for an amazing six months.

There are many things that I could write about that time (and I’m sure one day I will) but my point for this piece is that for the six months that I was there, I only met one person who spoke with an accent that wasn’t Australian. I don’t remember this Belgian girl’s name or very much else about her now, but what I do remember is that I absolutely adored her. And all she had to do to earn this adoration was speak with a foreign accent, so starved were my ears of a variety that had become familiar after years of living in London. Of course there were “foreigners” living in Australia, but for some reason they weren’t in my circle of acquaintance during that time, and I missed them.

I was very young when I left Australia and I think it was probably my youth, while I was there, that made me feel disconnected from problems in other parts of the world. The distance was also a factor, of course, but I think it was mostly the fact that I find it much easier to identify with other places when I’ve been on their shores and/or met their people. It’s much more difficult to have an “I’m all right, Jack” attitude when the people of whose suffering you read are people with whom you’ve eaten and talked and travelled.

That’s why it was so important for me to be involved in The Vagina Monologues and by association with One Billion Rising. I had the random good fortune of being born into a society where my very existence wasn’t threatened because I was a woman. But I’ve met people who didn’t have that same chance. I have no more right to life, freedom, self-determination and dignity than they do. There are some rights that should be inalienable.

Perhaps this three-minute video will give you a better understand of what trying to say. Be warned that it’s not for the faint of heart. And be aware that it concerns issues that everyone in the world should know about.

 

One is the magic number

Not all those who wander are lost.

JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

 

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…