Every now and then nostalgia crashes over me like a barrel of surf, threatening to dump me disheveled and gasping in the shallows. But unlike a wave gathering water on the horizon, building strength as it nears, this feeling comes out of nowhere.
The touch of a coarse and pitted avocado skin will take me to our garden in Lae, Papua New Guinea, where my mother nurtured the tree from seed to seven years, when it finally bore fruit. A white orchid will take me to my wedding day, crisp and frosty, atop a Gloucestershire hill. The scent of a luscious mango leads me straight to Trinidad, where our garden was filled with trees, and where I would offer sack loads to the plumber, the painter, the electrician and then find the same man at the bottom of the road selling them to passing cars. A snatch of overheard Thai from two women in a Houston supermarket sends me to the jostle and colour of Bangkok street stalls. I am back playing amongst the mangosteen grove in our garden in Kuala Lumpur when I see the new diet wonder drug, garcinia, pop up on the computer screen.
Today it was words flashed up on my twitter account, touting the success of a diplomatic mission from Equatorial Guinea to China that brought on the homesick blues. Even if cynicism also reared its ugly head at the headline, in an instant I was back in West Africa. By far the most challenging of our many assignments, but in so many other ways one of the most interesting. Possibly because of those challenges. But like everywhere we have lived, it invariably boils down to the people met, the moments shared, whether with a fellow expatriate, a local friend, or an employee.
I don’t live in the past, I never have, but sometimes my senses play these tricks and I am back five, twenty, forty years ago, and when my thoughts return to my current place, I am often somewhat surprised at my surroundings.
When I went to boarding school at age ten from my home in Malaysia, I would hiccup my way to Sydney, Australia, sob through that first night staying with a despairing aunt, rally for a few hours on seeing my friends again either on the long train journey to Armidale, or catching up once at NEGS, then dissolve once more into tears when my head hit the pillow. After a couple of nights my other life, that of school, would supersede my home life and I would shake of the sadness, but the pattern repeated itself for about three years. And after that my two lives were entirely separate, but considering I only went home twice a year that was six bouts of extreme homesickness. It’s a hollowness that can overwhelm.
Our senses are stirred by snippets from our past. Music takes most of us back somewhere, whether to an adolescent fumbling or a romantic encounter, maybe a road trip, or a sultry night in an outdoor bar on the Gulf of Guinea where I first heard Vaya Con Dias sing her soulful songs.
For those moored to one place the flashes of nostalgia can be shared with friends and family, the do-you-remember-moments. But for those of us whose lives have been spent roaming the globe, the opportunity to reminisce is harder. We have all moved on to different places, which is probably why country reunions, like the BOGs, Bangkok Old Girls, carries on year after year in London.
I don’t regret a moment of my life, well maybe a couple, but I do sometimes think it would be nice to be in the same time zone as all my friends and family, so I could pick up the phone and say, “do you remember when?”
Sometimes though there is no-one with whom to share that recollection. One of my fondest memories is of planting a garden with our Ghanaian guard, Stephen, as we discussed African history and politics under the pitiless equatorial sun. Him leaning on a hoe as he expounded on British rule, me grubbing in the soil. He is no longer there. I hope he is still alive, he was not old but had lived a hard life. I would like to think he is finally back in his village just north of Accra, with his family.
Nostalgia can hurt, the wave of past events can make us lonely, and so I wallow for a moment in the pages of my memories, then very much like I did at NEGS shake off the sadness, open the trunk with all those country labels and lock away the homesick blues.