Tag Archives: Transition

Two suitcases, maybe three… and the gift of lettuce

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Yes, for the next two or three months, those will soon be my possessions at-hand… two suitcases, maybe three. Oh, and my trusty white fedora. I find it interesting that in my writer’s biography I mention that, At the age of 26, I packed my hopes and dreams in a 55 L backpack. It was thrilling, liberating, I was free!

Now, the prospect of living out of suitcases is confining and downright inconvenient. We have a little more than one week in our Indian apartment before we close this door and walk through the next. Naturally I’m emotional and a little overwhelmed. That supposed euphoria of packing those suitcases and flying off to ‘freedom’ is inching closer, but the romance of it all still mostly eludes me. Today feels like a Monday Morning Email kind of morning, so writing becomes my solace.

If I were to write an MME to you, it would convey these thoughts…

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Wednesday, April 18th, Bangalore, India,,

Dear Reader,

As I write on this Wednesday morning, song birds serenade, my potted palms colour and cheer as usual, yet boxes already inhabit my once-serene surroundings. Getting ready for the next chapter is a lengthy process, but then its upon you like a fast moving freight train. Transition started months ago when we learned that my husband’s posting would come to an end here. Even though we were part of this decision, we then started discussing, pondering and planning. But in previous moves, we had known where we would next be living.

This time around, I face the difficulty of packing without a destination firmly set, though it will be somewhere in Europe or Canada. And with this, I chuckle a little. For us that is nicely ‘narrowed down’ in this wide, wide world. Asia has been a meaningful experience, yet it’s time to be closer to home. And though I agree with this, I’ve still managed to have two very emotional days over the past few weeks. But even those are part of the process of detachment, acceptance and transition.

The first difficult day happened to be on Easter Sunday. Ironically, after having ‘kids’ living with us for almost a year, Bruce and I happened to be alone. Luke, Trixie and Matt were off backpacking in Sri Lanka and I’ll admit to enjoying some time on our own. I preface this by saying how much we’ve enjoyed this multi-generational living, this ‘suddenly my nest is no longer empty’ phase. I would not have changed it for the world.

It’s been wonderful having them here – days of working, conversing, dining and traveling together. Matt has been with us almost a year, Luke and Trixie since Christmas and I’m conscious that this particular phase will likely never be repeated – I will miss them tremendously on a day to day basis. And on that Easter Sunday, mostly I worried, I found myself frozen with trepidation, then finally I felt sadness as soon we’ll all go our own way; the reality of it all was suddenly breathtaking.

That leaves me and Bruce. After a holiday in Greece and the UK, we’ve decided to be in The Hague for a month or so – to a place that is home for us and also close to head office for Bruce. Things will transpire from there. In the meantime we’ve gone back and forth… where do we send our furniture?

img_1086“Forget the ‘ball and chain’ of the furniture,” Bruce consoled me that day. “It can stay in storage in Vancouver and we’ll see where and when we’ll need it. We’ll go home for the summer. We’ll write. We’ll kayak. We’ll see Andrew and Ayla, family and friends. Look at it as an opportunity, not a fear. And Ter,” he said with a comforting hug,” everyone will be fine. The kids have their own journey to figure out.” And he’s right. Matt is heading back to university, Luke and Trixie are working virtually. They’ll do a little more travelling, then settle in Europe. They are certainly living their dream and history repeats itself – they’re doing what we did at the same age

So I got on with my ‘lasts’ and my farewells. In Marilyn Gardner’s poignant book, World’s Apart, she mentions that rarely do people ask, ‘What have you left behind… those things that we lose when we transition.’ So true and indeed we must say our farewells, both internally and verbally, conscious of what we’re parting with. The places and people we often won’t see again – ever –and it’s difficult.

A week ago brought me to the next overwhelming day. There I stood in my bedroom, surrounded by clothes, shoes, bags, jewellery and scarves… so many darned scarves. Do I unconsciously collect them? There are a few from Azerbaijan, from Italy, Malaysia, even Kazakhstan. And don’t ask me how many from India! Indeed, how to choose which ones travel with me and which ones circumnavigate the world in a sea container. In reality, the scarves are really a metaphor for it all; for a household that gets picked up and shunted along.

I became even more emotional not knowing where I’ll have the opportunity to reunite with my personal things. Will it be a place I get to ‘dress up’ like I do in India for luncheons and events? It’s far different than what I would wear on a daily basis in our home base in Kimberley, or maybe cycling in The Netherlands. It feels like I’m packing away part of my identity.

On that particular day, my chivalrous soulmate again comes to my rescue. “Honey, I img_1088understand, I’ll carry an extra bag for you so you’ll have what you need. I’m sorry this is difficult for you.” But there’s some light-heartedness that also resonates. “You know my things barely fill one suitcase, more space for you!”

Yes he’s the sensible one, the minimalist when it comes to clothes. And to be honest just the acknowledgement that this was difficult for me, gave me strength. I began sorting and setting aside things to give away – to Priya, to the security guards, to the school we support. Finally packing could begin.

Now a week later the suitcases with carefully chosen clothes and accessories, begin to fill – an intro to minimalism has been good for me. Going forward, I’m determined to be more mindful. And yes, I’m well aware these supposed hardships and challenges pale into comparison to what many face. It’s never far from my thoughts.

As I was about to finish this Wednesday morning musing, my doorbell rang. I opened my door to Raj, my vegetable wallah.

“Madam, good day,” he said with his gentle, but exuberant manner that I have come to adore. “Lettuce for you,” Raj offered delightedly, handing me a tiny bunch of red lettuce. It is not something he normally stocks in his heaped cart of vegetables and he’s pleased to present it to me. It’s a bit of a luxury – indeed it felt like a gift.

“Thank you Raj, so, so nice. Yes thank you,” I accepted gratefully.

“Madam, my brother’s marriage is soon in Mysore. Family come?” Reluctantly I shared with Raj that we’ll be leaving soon. He’s taken aback and I found myself apologising.

“Yes Raj, I’m sorry too. I will miss India very much.”

Even those moments help with parting from a neighbourhood that has embraced us whole-heartedly. But it’s been like that this past week – gifts from the local pub that we love going to, heartfelt goodbyes at the ladies groups I’m involved with, and farewell drinks with our landlord and his family. “You must come back for the wedding in August,” they implored many times throughout the evening.

And yesterday, a handcrafted gift from the school we support was presented to me with a sincere note of thanks. Jagruthi enables disenfranchised children the chance of education and security, and is a poignant reminder of the severe hardships many in India face. I will write more, but our involvement has shown me humility and gratitude – for my loving family, the experience of another country, the calling-card of my new book and my speaking and workshop endeavours.

As I wrote a number of years ago in A Fine Set of Luggage when we live a global life, there is much more in those suitcases then meets the eye, thankfully it’s never been more true then now.
So when those two, maybe three suitcases are waiting and we lock the door for the last time, we’ll do what we’ve done in other countries. We’ll say farewell to the country and people who have hosted us so graciously. I know it will be with tears, and I know I can’t imagine not having lived in my beloved India.

For now, I continue the packing… I’ve narrowed the scarves down to a mere twenty!

Until next time, dear reader…

 

Luke and Trixie blog their adventures at howlblog.ca

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

India etched on my global heart… thirty days of ‘lasts’

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Today I have just thirty days… thirty more days of living in India.

A friend was recently asked if she loved this country. “I can only love it a little,” she replied thoughtfully. “I’ve already given my heart to Malaysia.”

And this is how it is when we adopt a country as our home. More often than not, it comes to claim a piece of our being – symbolically etched on our global hearts. Mine is already inscribed with Japan, Scotland, The Netherlands, Qatar, Oman, The US, Norway and Kazakhstan. Now to this, India will add its treasured motif.

I am sentimental and fragile at the moment. How will I say goodbye to so much that I love?  

I’ve done this many times before and I know to say a quiet farewell to all that has been my life here. And I will… with reluctance, but also with much gratitude.

It will be a sad farewell: to the birdsong in the lush canopy outside my windows, to the bats that flutter and flit overhead at sunset as we ‘happy hour’ on the terrace. To the rain tree whose expansive branches reach out like the arms of a fond friend, and to the two lemony yellow villas across the street that backdrop saffrony-orange flowers. Also to a giant-of-a-tree that will soon be plump with juicy mangos, and to the slender palm trees with whale-sized fronds hiding caches of coconuts and pairs of emerald green parakeets. And to my apartment – my beautiful space with its hues of greens, blues and ivories. Where I’ve penned two books, laughed and lived with my family, and stepped out to the terrace to marvel at refreshing, life-giving monsoon rains.

Yes I will bid long, lingering goodbyes: to my narrow street with tall shady trees reaching up to the brilliant blue sky, to the security guards who wave and greet warmly, to the vegetable cart that is trundled down daily with Raj at its helm. And I can’t forget the chai wallah who putters up on his motorbike early afternoon or the the saree-adorned sweepers and the rhythmic s w i s h – s w i s h of their short coconut brooms. I will  also say ‘so long’ to the cry of too many cats and far too many barking dogs – even to the clang-clang of Bishop Cotton’s school gate opening and closing, opening and closing again.

And of course before I leave, I will also give a nod to those things that I have despaired of – the all together too much traffic and having to launch myself into the stream with the now practiced nonchalance of a local. There is the symphony of horns and urban clamour, the potholes and broken sidewalks deep enough to lose oneself, the birds-nests of tangled, dangling wires and the choking air that clogs and catches your breath.

Oh, but there has also been much calm – early morning walks in sheltered parks, outdoor swims in sparkling pools and long lunches in frangipani and bougainvillea dotted courtyards.


At this time, I become conscious of the many
 ‘lasts’. Will this be the last time I walk past faded elegant villas that remind of  what once was, or through a market where vendors sell long coils of garlands as vivid as rainbows? Where the aroma of spices piled high entice and beguile? And I’m sure I’ll gaze at sarees so beautiful, and vibrant, they’ll make my heart leap as they have always done. Or perhaps I’ll engage in the friendly banter of barter with a gentle South Indian soul. 

How I will miss it all. And also my Indian friends; with gifts of sarees, with conversation so rich and stimulating, with sincerity and affection of which I have rarely known.

Inevitably, there will be ‘a last time’ gazing up to grand temples and spendid ruins, boarding a Southern Indian train, or cruising to the market in a rickshaw – wind rustling my hair, smells and sights so close I can touch and embrace them.  

Yes, that litany of ‘lasts’ will mark the cutting of threads that have bound me to this dear place. But in fact, they have already been woven into the tapestry of this global life – India’s richness, etched on my thankful heart.

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The gift of mangos and colour…the beautiful spirt of a people

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Charles and Mary have helped restore me – helped soothe the some-time ‘abrasiveness’ of living in a populous Indian city. The couple’s three-wheeler is tucked against a wall in a quiet leafy street, five or so blocks away from our apartment. After a long Sunday morning walk, we find them sizzling masala omelettes and fluffy dosas on their cast irons. When they reveal they’ve been setting up here for twenty-seven years, I suggest that they must have been the original ‘food truck’. They’re happy to have the attention and we spend some time together.

The tools of their trade are neatly stacked and at the ready: variants of stainless steel, gas burners and tanks, prepped veggies. Charles dips his hand into the bucket of chopped chilies and onions, giving it a further blend. Mary shyly reveals that June 14th is their anniversary. “Thirty-one years together and this,” she gestures with a sweep of the hand across their thriving business.

They are in perfect sync as they prepare their street food. Motioning to a photo gazing magisterially down at them, Charles wants me to notice the small shrine. “We’re Christians, Mother Mary and Jesus.” He nods at his Mary as if counting his many blessings. As workers from a nearby high-rise construction site make a beeline for Mary’s dosas, we take our leave – a few dosas and omelettes in hand.

A young lady floats past on the street, her sari matching the stunning blooms of a Scarlet Cordia. It’s been an inspiring corner: the vibrance of colour and the personal, genuine encounters. I pause to reflect…yes, it’s almost always about the people isn’t it?

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Allow me to back up…

After more than two months away, it’s been wonderful to be back in my modern Bangalore apartment with its soft hues of greens, blues and whites – its cool marble floors and lush ‘mural’ of trees and coconut palms beyond. It’s been a relief to sit at my desk and write in one spot. For much of the first week I cocooned myself; to transition, to slow down and yield to jet lag, to finally unpack.

The weather is cooling as summer passes and the monsoon rains are upon us. I gazed down to the profuse flowers and to the Headmaster’s garden, my adopted backyard. It’s pleasant, as are the charming interruptions. I heard the thwack, thwack of a coconut harvester’s knife, coconuts tumbling to the red-clay earth below. “Would Madam like coconuts?” a harvester asked as I stood a few wide meters away on my terrace. Minutes later the phone rang, Kajul’s voice informing me, “Madam coconuts here, I bring.”

I welcomed the cry of Raj, my dependable vegetable wallah. “Madam, long time since,” he said, whacking open a coconut, chiselling out its delicious contents. “Good for coconut chutney,” he suggested, as if to answer my ‘what to do with the gifts from next door?’ As I chose my vegetables, I received the usual reprimand from the villa ladies for being away so long. They have also gathered around the neighbourhood ‘water cooler.’

“How lovely, your homes have been repainted,” I commented, noticing the lemony wash on the aging villas. Now somewhat restored to their former glory, their statuesque mango tree is now framed more prettily. “Mangos are soon ready,” Anu said, pointing to the masses of plumping fruit.

The next day a hefty bag of mangos was presented by our landlord. “Welcome back,” Nando said in his affable manner, “the gift of mangos.” He has also recently returned after time in his other home in Belize. He and his wife will now spend six months enjoying the downtown view from their perch on the top floor – from their terrace that floats amongst the tree tops. “Come up for a drink sometime,” Nando adds.

“We will,” I agreed, “you’ll have to meet our Matt.” And as is the Indian way, drinks will start about 9, dinner not served until at least 11 pm.

On my second week home, I became absorbed with my book and also with another writing project. One which demands honesty and vulnerability, and so I’ll continue along that vein.

Matt is here with us in Bangalore, it’s been some years since he was last in Asia. He’s embraced the neighbourhood, the food (especially Preya’s) and he’s also opened our eyes. Seeing a place anew through someone else’s perspective is always thought-provoking.

Not long after arriving, Matt returned from the nearby five-star hotel that is also our club. “They treat you like royalty, almost over the top. Does it get tiring?” he asked. My mind paused…it struck me that I take this completely in my stride. Yet this is my present reality.

“It feels like I’m in a tropical rainforest,” he contunued roaming his eyes around the apartment. “It’s all beautiful Mom.”

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“I love it too. And I never tire of this view, it’s my solace,” I told him.

And in saying that, the question was…solace from what exactly?

Allow me to back up, yet again…

While I was away, I was interviewed from afar by the Economic Times of Bangalore. The article featured me as a writer and as an expat living in this booming city. What did I think of the city? Why was I here? What did you know of the city before you arrived?

I mentioned how Bangalore’s people and history inspired me to write. How I could relate equally to security guards who leave their villages to work and to altruistic entrepreneurs who give up careers to care for children in need. I’m fortunate to hear their voices and write their stories.

I was pressed to compare Bangalore with other former homes – Osaka, Amsterdam, Aberdeen, Doha, Muscat, Stavanger, Aktau and Houston. Encouraged to give anecdotes, even as a writer I asked myself…how honest should I be? Too many answers, where do I start?

I related that I love the unexpected. What’s around the corner. I adore the tropical greens, the vivid saris and sumptuous fabrics, the spicy curries, the moveable feasts of fruit and vegetables carts and the cool roof-top bars. And wonderfully, I am always made to feel at home. But I was also honest.

I admitted that Bangalore’s congestion, waste management and lack of green space is a cause for concern. I lamented. “They must stop chopping down these magnificent trees for the sake of continued growth. This city would be so much more livable if the sidewalks were not as hazardous. If city ‘fathers’ recognized pedestrians were as important as vehicles.”

But there is an unwritten rule in an expat life; one shouldn’t offend their host country. I try to live by this. Yet just once, I’d love for someone to allow me to cross a street safely. Could traffic yield to me while I’m on a cross-walk. Perhaps education from the government to educate. Elevated pedestrian bridges to avoid the senseless monthly death-toll. Should this not be a basic human right in a city that attracts investment from companies worldwide?

“Mom has anyone ever stopped for you?” Matt asked one day, alarmed by the craziness. “Yes”, I answered, “Twice.” He was amused that I actually had an exact number for him.

“I know,” I told him, “it would be funny it it weren’t so sad.”

I also could have elaborated about the pitiful waste management. Trash defiles many of the streets, though we are more fortunate in the heart of the city, and at least here we don’t have open fires burning garbage and further polluting the air. Thankfully, we are remote from the many toxic city lakes that froth and foam, that catch on fire due to volatile chemicals . The papers report this, people protest, promises are made, on and on it goes…

DSCF0464These are a few negatives that I might have mentioned in the article, had I been more candid. After time in pedestrian and cycle-friendly Holland and the beautiful mountains and cityscapes of Canada, there is the inevitable adjustment to India. This coming and going in an expat life takes one across the full spectrum of experiences and emotions, there are many of them.

When adjusting back into this other world, exploring is often my antidote. This past weekend we headed to Bangalore Fort with its gate ‘tall enough for an elephant plus howdah‘ and its robust Islamic-styled granite walls. It stands testament to the struggle of the Mysore Empire against the British. I had been here before but again I’m captivated by its imposing elegance.

Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace is close by, beautifully adorned teakwood pillars, arches and balconies, evoking scenes of the great Sultan holding court, planning his strategy to hold back the British.

Now, the fanned traveller’s palms and nearby temples evoke peace, not war. Serenity, not plunder. I soaked it up, breathed it in, not wanting to leave the hushed walls and enter back into the fray of the frenetic streets.

These landmarks of Bangalore’s history stand in one of the older pets, those neighbourhoods where many people barely scrape by…day by day, rupee to rupee. After taking photos of the fort and the palace, I put my camera away. That day I didn’t feel comfortable taking photos of vendors who line the streets. The wallahs for whom I have great respect and often empathy for…the back-bone of this country of 1.3 billion people. Many do well, like our Raj, but many sit under the baking sun; maybe just a few limes to sell, some shrivelled brinjal that no one is going to buy. And simply, many are too young.

“Let’s go home,’ Matt said, “I feel like I’m intruding.” That sentiment has crossed my mind many times. The wallahs are hard working and a contrast to those who beg for alms; but then I can’t judge their circumstances. It remains disconcerting for me, the inequity never making sense either to ‘seasoned veterans’ or ‘fresh eyes’.

DSCF0520The following Sunday morning we walk through nearby Cubbon Park. It’s not exactly manicured, but lush and peaceful nevertheless. There are glimpses of the city’s past as a British cantonment, military legacy of the final Mysore war. A reminder of when residents strolled through this once glorious ‘garden city’.

We come upon the Government Museum, a 19th century neoclassical. A troop of gardeners and one security guard, are digging ragweed from the lawn. “Good Morning sir, you’re working early. And you’re making progress,” I offer, spying a pile of weeds.

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The guard introduces himself and adds, ‘Yes too many weeds are there, much work.” Motioning to Matt to give it a try, he hands him the weeding tool. He watches as his new apprentice-gardner up-roots a few pesky weeds, encouraging me to take a photo. A brief but sincere encounter…the geniality of Southern India.

We meander to another neighbourhood, the small houses making rainbows of colours. Without hesitation, the children run to me, “Auntie, auntie, where from?” They are playing happily in the street, pestering at the local corner store and as always, pleading for their photo to be taken.

It seems that households have been busy. Reams of laundry dry in the warm June morning, dishes await scrubbing, garlands decorate doorways and a young mother poses eagerly with her toddler. The colours and images are vivid and again I reflect that this is when I’m most content in India. On peaceful streets with daily activities like anywhere else – without the reminders of perpetual toil and poverty.

As we make our way out of the neighbourhood, a pack of mangy dogs mark us as interlopers. They snarl and yap until a kindly lady steps away from her heaped cart of pots and pans. Offering her apologies, she escorts us around the corner, swiping and scolding the mutts. The chickens let us pass.

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So I come full circle to Charles and Mary at the end of that second outing. It was as if they greeted us back to our own bustling, yet reassuring neighbourhood, more privileged than most yet still typical. Vibrant colours, chaotic traffic, life lived on the streets – lives of difficulty and of prosperity. Simply, it is India.

Above all what I’ve come to love here is its people. I respect their industriousness and for many their perseverance. So yes, I could have added more to that article. I would have implored the government to do more: fix the sidewalks, protect the trees and greens spaces, combat the pollution, ensure the water supply for farmers and for all, try to eradicate the vast inequities. People like Charles and Mary, Raj, Kajul, Preya, the children who welcomed me as ‘auntie’, they all deserve a voice. I advocate for them, not myself, my time here will be only another year.

One last quote from that article, “Bangalore has become like the other cities I’ve lived, I cannot imagine not having been here.”

I embrace India for the complex layered story that it is and I’ll continue to cherish the beautiful spirit of the people.

And so I await the next playful unpredictability, the next enchanting exploration and naturally more sincere encounters to come.

It seems that will happen this coming weekend. It’s time to initiate Matt into Indian train travel, a passage to the bewitching ruins of Hampi has been booked. Another chapter in our Indian story.

 

 

Travels and touchstones…fifteen roses in memoriam

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I write this on my flight from Frankfurt to Bangalore. The sun streams in as we fly over Budapest. We pass Munich, cross the Danube, Rome is off south. It’s time to return to Asia, time to be ‘home’. There’s much to reflect on these past few months, much joyful, but regrettably not all.

A Bollywood Masala serenades me as a pre-diner drink is served. The music is intoxicating and strangely in sync with my melancholy. It never fails to feel somewhat surreal, Gosh I’m on my way to India…and I live there. And this time especially, I just want to be there, in one place for more than a few weeks at a time.

I play one track over and over again. It is evocative and comforting. First I write, then simply sit and be. I reflect on this past week of a farewell to a loved, my brother-in-law, who passed away.

I glance at the book I’m reading and a quote from Rabindranath Tagore, India’s dearest writer, jumps off the page and resonates.

”If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars.”

I left India just over two months ago to attend a conference in The Hague, then onward to Canada, meeting up with my husband in Vancouver. On idyllic spring days there and in Victoria, and in the company of two of our sons and their girlfriends, we strolled beaches, soaked up the sun on wind-swept piers and walked drizzly streets under cherry blossomed canopies. We drank in the beauty and the calm, the sublime balances of city life surrounded by mountain vistas, forested coastlines and the endless Pacific Ocean.

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Staying just a stone’s throw away from ‘the kids’, we took pleasure from sharing everyday things; signing a new lease, early morning rock-climbing, late night games and long chats. As for many of us, time with our grown children is painfully finite. Each visit is treasured.

DSCF0160Back at our home base, we got down to practicalities. The lawn cried out for raking to usher spring growth, layers of dust counted the months since our last visit and the deck beckoned us to sit and luxuriate. During respites in a favourite chair, I looked longingly at my deserted flower pots, begging for summer blooms. But in vain; we won’t return until August.

There was time with good neighbours and friends; hiking, walking and conversation. Yet it wasn’t long before it was time to close up the house and I did what I do each time I leave, what I’ve done for the past eight years. I sign my own guest book. Here from such and such a place, date, did this and that…chronicling those everyday moments that comprise life.

Having delayed my return to India I made my way with our middle son, Matt, to my parents for Mother’s day. We spent a weekend of games, seeing family and friends, lazed around an outdoor fire on a Sunday afternoon. We strolled through the garden picking tulips and the first of the asparagus – the apple tree is in abundant bloom, a heavenly canopy over the graves of family dogs. A tranquil weekend – simple joys of being home.

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And as if preparing and steeling me for the week before us, my final few days in Calgary were also comforting.

“Are you back in the city?” Carol asked not long after I’d arrived. “I’ve been thinking about you, can I see you before you leave?”

“Carol I’m glad you called, though I have sad news. Rod has passed away, I meet Bruce in London in a few days.”

“I’m on my way,” she said, “be right over.”

Carol is the sister I didn’t have and we rather like that we’re often mistaken for siblings. She is my touchstone. Same high school, same hometown, same cultural references. When I finished college our mothers arranged for us to live together. With a job secured, I packed up my ’77 Camaro and headed to the big city. We’ve been soulmates ever since– connected through life’s milestones. We know each other’s history like a well-read book.

DSCF0217When Carol walked half an hour later into our small condo in Calgary, suitcases lined the hallway. She offered her condolences and with a hug reminded me, “You get to leave again.” Tales of my global life are music to her ears.

Carol is also a traveller but now spends most of her time in Calgary, with a yearly buying trip to Asia for her importing business. I flit in and out of her life…if I’m honest, everyone’s life.

I commented on the scene outside as dusk approached on that warm spring evening – the emerging twinkling skyline, the milky turquoise river, the flow of walkers, cyclists and skateboarders, the couples nestled on park benches.

“But Carol you get to be here, in one place, see spring turn to summer, then autumn. I skip whole seasons and then plunk myself into life for a month or so. Always unpacking and packing, always on the move.” We have this conversation often, yet would either of us truly give up the life we have for the other?

The evening turned late, as is usual each time we’re together. There’s never enough time for the stories, the meanders, the laughter and this time the tears. Carol recently lost her mother and her pain is still at the surface and my heart breaks for her. “You can never know what it is to lose your mom until it happens.”

We meet again late the next afternoon and stroll until the evening turns dim. Sunnyside/Kensington is quirky, a mix of older homes and new. A pleasant sedate neighbourhood going about its business of life.

DSCF0233“It’s almost the end of May. How strange most homes still have a snow shovel on the front porch,” I remarked after yet another shovel belied the gorgeous weather.

“You know the saying,” Carol looked at me with a wry smile.

“I have no idea.”

Never put snow shovels away until the end of May,” she rhymed. “It tempts the weather to snow”. I had never heard this before and noted that many of the shovels seem to compliment the house perfectly, adding a splash of colour, almost completing the image of home.

Unlike my children who were raised globally, Carol and I have a hometown with the anecdotes and recollections to go with it. This is now more poignant than ever for her as sadly she was recently faced with dismantling her mother’s life. Having to go through the meaningful and the ‘just stuff’, the heartbreak of not only saying farewell to your loved one, but also to your family home. As we strolled in the evening hues over Calgary, I felt a certain calm in offering some solace and for her love and understanding of what was on the horizon for me and my husband.

Having only returned to India a week previously, my husband headed back west and met me in London. Our long embrace at Heathrow Airport was the calm before the storm, the balm for the soul. The four hour drive to Wales seemed unusually long, but we were together. We had no choice but to start brainstorming, start planning…

Rod had made his way south as a young man, following his profession from Scotland to Welsh Wales (as he lovingly referred to it). He never left. With his untimely death came the painful realization that it was up to the two of us to plan and host his funeral, and clear his home.

Arriving at the house for the first time was wrenching, signs of Rod’s interrupted life were stark reminders of the fragility of time. The new bags of potting soil and gardening tools, a carefully chosen cherry tree and parsley already abundant were particularly poignant. Not knowing what to do, we did what we felt was right. We lit a candle, chose a good bottle of wine and pulled out one of Rod’s many c.d’s. We’re sure he would have been pleased and with tears welling, we offered up a toast to him and to the house – the last time it would be a home. The next day everything would change.

All those things he valued, collected or just ‘stuff’ had to be dispersed. It is somber and admittedly tedious, and I suspect it isn’t often when one only has six days from start to finish. Perhaps that somehow made it easier.

We only managed with the help of family and good friends. In the midst of it, there was the paper work, meeting the pastor, arranging the funeral, writing the order of service and the eulogy. We secured a bagpiper, we ordered flowers.

“We’d like white roses, some thistle to represent Scotland, something for Wales, but a natural, wild look.”

“I think I understand what you’d like, a scruffy look,” the florist reassured calmly.

“Yes, perfect.” I was relieved, then chose a ribbon that best matched the family tartan.

The two scruffy bouquets were simply perfect.

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And finally we were able to honour our Roderick Wilson. The bagpiper welcomed and moved many to tears – the haunting, rousing strains reached into souls, touching innermost emotions. My husband delivered an eulogy that was eloquent and powerful, honouring a man that despite blindness and ill health, had poured his heart into his church community and friends.

An after service ‘tea’ at the church with an array of baked goods spoke of community and the indelible connection of life. “Ah my nephew is out in Canada.” “I work with the church in India, come see us when you get to Calcutta.” “We’ll miss our Rod,” we heard over and over again. Rod’s trusty and beloved guide dog, Neena, was with us throughout. She will officially retire on June 1st and is with a loving family; a celebration is planned for her.

The beautiful day was infused with the comfort of my husband’s cousins from Scotland. “It wasn’t a question of coming or not, of course we’d be here,’ they said without hesitation. Jean and Christine grew up five doors down from my husband’s family home. The lush bluebell woods behind their homes was their playground. An idyllic place where the trees had names like Thunderbird and Big Ben.

“We were always together it was the perfect childhood, pet,” Jean told me in her warm Scottish accent that placed me back with my late mother-in-law.

“That’s what Isa used to call the boys,” I remembered fondly. Along with the comfort of family and their unreserved love, Jean and Christine brought a piece of Scotland to Wales.

The day of the funeral culminated with an intimate gathering of close friends and family. At one of his favourite restaurants, we toasted our dear Rod and when his ashes arrived we toasted again. We’re quite sure his off-beat sense of humour would have enjoyed the scene. We strolled in the early evening down to the water, hand in hand, arm in arm. Past the comfort of an aged stone wall, past spring flowers and the promise of new beginnings.

The tartan ribbon was unfastened and the scruffy bouquet was our solace, one most perfect of white roses for each of us. “Please say a few words as the ashes and your rose meet the water’, my husband asked.

And we did. “Thank you for your love and help raising me,” Thank you for your humour and friendship.” “I’ll miss you.” “You have three nephews who love you and the Wilson name lives on, dear brother-in-law.’  There was grief and sadness, there was laughter, new friendships and rekindled family bonds. It was a soulful, fitting farewell.

IMG_3746 (1)Fifteen roses, a loved one’s ashes, and a few Scottish thistles drifted peacefully out to sea. In remembrance of a life and good deeds done. And that seems all we can ask for; to live, to love, to have loved ones remember and speak well of us when our time comes. To be there for those who need comforting.

It isn’t often that you truly contemplate how you’d like to be honoured when the time comes, but I know I would chose a day like we had in Wales. Despite the loss, it was a time of family, friends and tenderness. One of poignancy and meaning, one of gladness for what was.

And perhaps for those of us who live globally, time seems ever more precious as our parents age, as we miss our worldwide friendships, as our children live their own lives. Visits home are never long enough, yet we look forward to returning to that other life, that other ‘home’. It’s a fine balance of sacrifices and abundance, of memories and goodbyes; never does it strike you more than after losing a loved one.

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As I finish writing, the captain announces that it will soon be time to land. I feel a tap on my shoulder. “How has the flight been Mom?”

It’s one of Rod’s nephews, our dear son Matt. He’s on his way with me, his new journey to spend some time with us and do some travelling. I’m looking forward to being ‘home’ again and I’m thankful it will be with one more family member…

Family, friendships, home, journeys, farewells and time spent with loved ones…really just life. Embrace it.

They’ll be home…where the garden is, where memories live

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The pond, for fishing and skating

Our evening stroll offered swooping owls, waddling ducks and darting dogs. The sun sunk low into a newly planted field that borders the acreage, we call it home…’the farm.’ I’ve made my way back to Canada to surprise my parents for their 40th Anniversary, returning to a plot of land that embodies nature’s bounty, a lifetime of work and more memories than can be captured on film. But there’s no need; the images are imprinted on our hearts, embedded into our collective family memory.

This land, a grain field forty years ago, is now an oasis with towering blue and white spruce, and ponderosa pine that shelter from howling north winds. The grass is verdant this spring, its rich emerald hue a backdrop for flowers in bloom, golden spurge and delicate May Day trees.

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At the garden shed

These are the prairies of Western Canada where settlers have arrived for the past few hundred years; enticed by fertile farm land, hopeful for idyllic homesteads and new beginnings.

From their European homelands they ventured by ship, uncertain of what the future held. They journeyed onward by train, along the newly laid Canadian Pacific Railway, disembarking at communities across this vast country.

As with my mother’s family in the ’50’s, many arrived from the Netherlands, risking all for a new life; hard work and toil yielded success. Proud, new citizens in a welcoming land. Some settlers trekked from the east or the U.S. in caravans of wagons, stacked high with furniture and family. The wagon parked on the acreage from my father’s family, is a proud reminder of their storied journey. Now a backdrop for a yellow rose bush, it was once a means of transport. A working wagon for hauling hay, feed, grain to elevators.

Quiet country roads

Quiet country roads

In my family, you garden, work in the yard, grow things, landscape and stroll the land; just as our ancestors have done. Is it in your blood, this need to commune with the land, I feel it is. I felt it wouldn’t be spring for me until I could dig a little, plant, walk the dogs along scented lilacs and quiet country roads.

And so, I’ve come home to my parents and I find them where they should be…where I’m delighted to be.

They’re ambling below dreamy blue skies, dogs nudging at their sides and geese gliding over sky. I’ve found them plucking asparagus, planting gladiolas and poking hollyhock seeds into tilled earth. It’s time to cut first grass, take the ‘storm plastic’ off and let the deck breath, prepare the planters and the ‘beds’. Soon the kitchen table will display their bounty; bouquets of lupins, tulips, dahlias, peonies, lilacs and glads.

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Tulips in bloom

My parents awaken, work and stroll to a symphony of cooing, cawing; a melody of birds. Plump robins, doves, meadowlarks and elusive owls. Partridges, pheasants, hawks and cowbirds chirp and squawk. Butterflies flutter and bees flit past, en route to blossoms and buds.

Where grandchildren played and played

Where grandchildren played and great- grandchildren now play

Under billowy clouds, skunks duck into warrens and gophers tunnel, deer prance through fields past gangly hares. The dogs wait patiently on a weathered deck as we have a ‘wee dram’ at dear, long time neighbours. Storm clouds brew, awakening our senses as we rush home through the shelter belt of trees.

These glorious days of spring find us reminiscing of grandchildren that grew up in this haven of outdoor activity. My children who were raised on different continents, came here…to be home.

Towering elms

Towering elms

Here, with cousins, they learned how to skate on a frozen pond and ‘hold on tight’ for tractor-drawn sleigh rides. How to build snow forts and duck snowballs. Summers passed in perpetual movement…running barefoot over green lawns, soaked and squealing. ‘Secret missions’ played out through trees and fields. Golf carts, bikes and trikes circled the yard, eager for an adventure.

It’s here they played ball, built campfires and gazed at a million stars. Where Grandpa taught them how to fish, to golf, to ‘drive a standard’ in a rusty, green pickup truck. Where Grandma ensured they knew how to play ‘Texas Hold Em’, sing ‘Hollandse leidjes’ and bake waffle cookies. Yes, it’s here they came to bond with family, find their roots, to become…Canadian.

This oasis has been a constant in our lives, a refuge on the beloved flatlands of the prairies. I find my parents offering the same inviting hospitality that has always been for my family, since the day I was married…here, on this land. The elms and pines are taller now, the wagon more weathered and the kitchen table a little scuffed from hearty meals and lively gatherings.

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Grandfather’s wagon

And as it was recently when I crept into their home from halfway around the world, it was as always, gezillig…that Dutch word for cozy. The surprise was genuine; as were the friends and family here to celebrate these two special people. I know we’re fortunate to live and travel the world. Yet, we have a haven to come home to…it’s just east of Barnwell*, Alberta, Canada. And my parents, I’ll find them here…home.

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An Anniversary surprise

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The colour of beehives

*Barnwell is not named after a barn and a well, but after William Barnwell who immigrated from England. His family dates back to the Baron de Barnwell who came from Normandy with William the Conqueror in 1066

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An early spring bouquet

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The neighbour’s barn

It Takes A Village…

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It occurred to me at the #FIGT conference, that I had never referred to my three sons as TCK’s or third culture kids.* Listening to the varied educators, authors and specialists at the conference, I came to understand why I hadn’t done this. I wanted them to be ‘normal’.

So despite having lived in seven countries, having had different experiences AND losing their friends every three, four or six years, they were supposed to be like any other child. What I realized throughout the conference is that excellent support and care exists for expat families who live overseas. There is often a need for this. I’m thankful that for the most part, my three coped fairly well. However partly what FIGT is concerned with and facilitates, is that for many children and their parents, this global life can be challenging, confusing and leave kids without a sense of belonging to any country.

Three children raised by a global village

As parents we feel guilty that they may not have a home town to call their own. We worry that they only see extended family during holidays. We fret that they don’t have ownership to any one place, even their home country feels alien at times.

And yet as the esteemed Dr. Fanta Aw reminded us during her keynote speech at FGIT...it takes a village to raise a child. And this is precisely what we do as global parents. We pull out all the resources to ensure that our kids have a sense of home in which ever country they’re living in; parents, teachers, coaches and volunteers all contribute to raising expat children. We all become their village.

My husband and I created a sense of normality (from a Canadian’s viewpoint) by starting and coaching a baseball league in Oman. I wasn’t pleased that my boys may not grow up playing baseball and so with the help of passionate coaches and parents, I started a baseball league. We soon had over one-hundred kids from all over the world playing. Some of these families also helped with the hockey team, also a first to be formed in the stifling heat of Muscat. Our coach, Teppo Virta, will always be a hero in the eyes of my boys.

I was overwhelmed years later when one of my sons depicted me as a ‘hero’ for facilitating their desire to play a sport that wouldn’t have been possible. I had only done what many of us do for our children in foreign lands; form and nurture clubs and organizations of every description. For we know that when children grow up globally, it’s even more important that they belong to something that represents their home culture and identity.

As Dr. Aw, reminded us, “It’s an intersection of experiences, relationships and friendships that become family.  It’s the people that claimed you in good and bad.” And that is what a village does. Be it physical or not, as in the case of many global families, our extended family has helped raise our cherished children. We ask so much of these resilient kids; arriving, living and leaving so many countries. And yet if we all do our part to help raise them, the ‘village’ is a pretty good place to be.

I recently asked one of my sons if he would change anything from his overseas childhood. “No mom, look at the experiences and opportunities that I’ve had. Not to mention the friends I have all over the world.”

Yes, all part of that village that we’re fortunate indeed to be a part of.

*Note, a TCK is defined as a person who has spent a significant part of his/her development years outside their parents’ culture.  As summarized in Linda A. Janssen’s informative book, The Emotionally Resilient Expat published by Summertime Publishing