Z is for Zest

It is a cliché phrase, but when we say that someone has a zest for life we usually understand it to mean they are enthusiastic and energetic. It’s a compliment, and for some it is a goal – to have a zest for life is to be full of energy and to have a sense of optimism that ensures you’ll try anything, be spontaneous, and have a go. Or maybe you’re just one of those happy, positive people who gets a kick out of life in general. Go you!

Sometimes I like to think I have a zest for life. In fact, I’ve been told that I do, though I wonder if my open-mindedness is sometimes confused for enthusiasm. Let’s face it, there are some days when I’d rather curl up in a ball and hide under the covers than confront life. I will confess, however, that – despite my occasional hermit tendencies – I am willing to try most things once before I make a decision on them.

I know I do not like capsicum, though if it makes an appearance on my plate I’ll give it another go and usually confirm the fact that I don’t like it before picking the rest out. Raw onion doesn’t stand a chance. Ever. It’s discarded before the plate is centred on the table before me. Yuck! I’ve eaten haggis (tastes like sausage), alpaca (delicious), pigeon (gamey and tough), partridge (divine, though it might have been the lemon sauce I loved most), sting ray (fishy), and an assortment of other interesting culinary delights. I have a particular like for duck and rabbit, no problem eating part of my national emblem (kangaroo), and found snails and frogs legs to be nothing too challenging when served up alongside a view of the Eiffel Tower.

OK, so I’ll eat anything.

I’ll also decide – rather spontaneously and without logical processing of exactly what it might entail – to hike the Inca Trail. I’ll bend over backwards to kiss a stone from a great height despite having a terrible fear of heights that sees me far, far away from the balcony rail at lookout points (I refer to Blarney Castle in Ireland, not just any old stone – and that’s another story). I am sometimes startled by the things I’m about to do, am doing, or have done – but something doesn’t quite tweak in my head to not do things. It’s not that I put myself in dangerous situations (intentionally, anyway) but sometimes I take a step away from myself and gasp at what I’m doing.

“He isn’t worried about you,” one of my co-workers said in reference to one of the more senior staff. “He says you’re a risk taker,” she laughed, “and you’ll be the one who handles the change of being here best, because you know how to take risks.”

While I took this as a great compliment, I was also terribly surprised. A risk taker? Me? But I don’t jump off bridges or scale mountains or parachute out of planes! I just … Oh. Right. The whole “You want me to move to a country I’ve never been to in seven weeks? Sure!” thing. Yeah, I guess it’s a risk, a gamble … a challenge!

It would be very easy for me to get a cushy job in a city I know surrounded by people I love in a country that doesn’t require I get visas or fill out special forms upon arrival. Oh, who am I kidding? It wouldn’t be easy for me at all – remember? I tried it. It didn’t work. I can’t do “normal” like some people do. I tried having a five year plan (several times) but it just didn’t work. A zest for life? Maybe … How about a zest for new experiences and a good challenge? I think I prefer that.

When I hear the phrase “a zest for life” I cannot help but think of citrus fruit. Citrus fruits have some of my favourite flavours, particularly lime and lemon. I love a good lime tart and lemon pudding – and a good citrus dish gets its flavour from the zest of the fruit. This is the part that might be discarded when you’re snacking on an orange or squeezing lime juice for your mojito, but it is the zest that gives flavour – more than what just the pulp or juice will give.

For me, having a zest for life (or anything) means getting the most out of everything; you have to use every part so you can get the most intense and delicious flavour.

Y is for Youth

Today I contacted a writing group about getting more involved in some kind of literary community. I mentioned my age, location, and desire to meet people who like books and writing. After realising that all my friends here are over 40 (I think … I don’t want to be rude and estimate higher but I’m pretty sure no one’s under 39), I thought it might be a good idea to get some around my own age. By “some” I mostly refer to single, literate pilots who  need a responsible and semi-articulate wife with whom to share their travel benefits in exchange for social appearances and well-reared children (or, let’s be honest, children who may or may not be well-reared).

Oh come on, you’re thinking that it’s a great idea even if you’re judging me!

Continuing … I would like to point out that I am very happy with my new friends and have no issue with their ages. However it’s been a long time since I’ve had physical interaction with another person who doesn’t have children or a husband, or who hasn’t been through menopause (side note: I’m probably the most prepared 20-something year old ever). I love my friends’ kids, enjoy having drinks with my colleagues, and all that jazz, but it’s damn hard to meet someone who doesn’t have responsibilities to someone else! spontaneity is hard when the people you’re inviting out have to “check” with someone else!

The follow-up response came from someone who said she is 23 and therefore “closer to my age”. I nearly died. 23? Close to my age? What?! Did she mean 32?

… Oh. Right. I’m 26. Not 36. Or 46.

I don’t always feel young. Actually, I rarely feel young. When the kids ask me how old I am I usually respond “very”. It’s bizarre because I feel like I’m old and well past my shelf life (actually, others who are concerned about my single status have been the ones who’ve hinted that the clock is ticking on Finding A Man and Settling Down) but I’m also in denial about being all grown up and wearing sensible shoes (the gorgeous silver heels I smuggled in my carry on do not count in this category, though I’m yet to have an occasion to wear them). I’m still casting aside the student/vagabond costume and trying to get used to the feel of adult/teacher garments … Quite frankly, my current cravings are for daggy yoga pants and several consecutive days spent lounging with a book, cat in my lap, interrupted only by the need to open another bottle of wine. Yes, I make a better Crazy Cat Lady than I do anything else, but I’m working on the facade of Responsible Member of Society with Suitable Qualifications and a Full Time Occupation.

Anyway.

I’m working on embracing my youth. Whatever that may mean … I think I’m past the age of blaring music and cheap wine (Bohemian Rhapsody excepted) but I’m not quite ready for bed at 9pm and anti-wrinkle cream.

X is for Xi Wang

At lunch time I checked my phone and found a message from one of my new friends:

I need to tell you my mother passed away this morning.

I went to the airport and saw her before she went through customs. She’ll be back in less than a week.

Less than a week to bury her mother and return to work.

My experience with death has been limited. Aside from an extremely serious case of pneumonia that saw my Dad on life support in 2009, my family has been fit, healthy, and living. My maternal grandparents bounce around with my younger cousins (and with me, via Skype) and while Granny is plagued by arthritis and Pa is plagued by Granny, they’re a pretty healthy pair for two old bats in their seventies. (Hi Gran, enjoying my blog?) We are a close family. We love, we laugh, and we are physically very far away from each other. It’s been like this my whole life, and I wouldn’t change a thing – without my family being where they are, I wouldn’t have been to the places I’ve been, seen the things I’ve seen, and become the person I am. Anywhere I live will be far away from someone I love.

There were conversations before I left around what was and was not expected of me if something did and did not happen to certain people. The general rule agreed upon (actually, it was given to me rather vehemently): “Why would you come back? It’s not like you can do anything.”

It’s very easy to talk about the “what ifs” at a distance. It’s also very easy to talk about the “what ifs” when you have a somewhat young and healthy family because it’s never more than a “what if”. At least, you like to think it is.

It.

Death. Death.

I’m not good at naming “it”. Then again, I don’t think I’m expected to be – the English language has a plethora of euphemisms for death. Passed away. At rest. Gone.

I know what it’s like to be far away from someone only to wake up one morning and discover that you’ll never see them again.

Tonight, on the bus to the airport, I cried.

When I arrived, my face was dry and my mascara – thankfully – intact. I met my friend, listened, hugged, and made sure she had my number and email so that if she needs anything I can be contacted.

Part of me was hoping that, by now, I’d break my toe and have an x-ray for “X” in the Expat Alphabet. Instead, I have hope. Xi Wang is Chinese Mandarin for the verbs wish, hope, desire. (I hope – please let me know if this is completely wrong.) I have hope that my friend reconciles her regrets over the death of her mother. I have hope that the people I love know that I love them. I have hope that – when the “what ifs” become a “what is” – I will give myself permission to grieve. Death isn’t just about the person in the grave. It’s also about the people they’ve left behind.

W is for Water

In 2008 my mother and I were wandering about Sydney and came across a tarot reader. We did what any other rational person would do when they had time to spare and took turns having a full reading done. I wish I had recorded everything that lovely woman had said, but there were several things in particular that stayed with me.

I’ve been a cynic for too long not to acknowledge the fact that this woman was being paid to tell me something profound and sufficiently vague that it would apply to anyone who was open-minded enough to sit for a tarot reading in the middle of a weekday. But there was also a period of time in which I believed in magic and the beauty of the human spirit. Before I became a bitter and twisted cynic, I was an optimistic believer in passion and creativity. I’m trying to recover aspects of this person who, once upon a time, cried when reading the news and laughed when rain fell on her face. It is with this in mind that I reconsider the psychic’s words now.

“You will travel,” she smiled.

“Yes,” I laughed. “My boyfriend and I are planning two years of living overseas and travelling. Probably around 2011 and 2012.”

“No,” she shook her head. “You’ll go somewhere this year.”

“Oh, we’re not really planning anything … ”

“Perhaps not, but you’ll have been to another country before the year is through.”

I was in Edinburgh for Christmas that year. There were a few other things she said that were sufficiently accurate to give me goosebumps, and then she examined the cards and gave me enough to make me want to drown the inner cynic because I wanted (and still want) so much to believe what she said to me.

“The time is coming when you must choose between what you think you should do and what you need to do. You are creative. You will create something important, but you must make the choice. Everything else will fall into place once you have made your choice.”

“The choice between creativity and … teaching?”

“You’re an artist.”

“I like to – ”

“Not paint or music,” she shook her head as she looked closer at the cards. “Words. You are very good with words. This is what you must choose between: the life you think you want and the life your soul needs. That life is with words, books, writing.”

At this stage in the reading I was buzzing with excitement and hanging onto her every word. Now that I am reflecting on her words, I feel tears well up within me. This was a time of great change for me – though I had not yet reached that point of Change when I sat down for the reading. When I turned over the cards, I was wondering about the future I would have with my boyfriend, hoping she’d give me some advice about lotto tickets, and say something sufficiently encouraging about the fact that I was really not enjoying teaching as much as I thought I would.

A few weeks later my Aunt emailed to say I was welcome to visit them in Edinburgh. In September I booked a flight to London, in October I advised the principal at the school where I was teaching that I would not be renewing my contract for the following year, and later that month I broke up with my boyfriend. Hey, I don’t do things in halves.

Whether she was telling the truth or fabricating for the sake of a memorable experience, I want so much to believe her – even if it was over three years ago. I didn’t make the immediate decision to write. It took me a little while to work out that wanting to write and actually writing were two different things. But I need to believe that what I write is enough – not for anyone else, but enough for me. I need to feel like my continued pursuit of creativity is valid. I don’t need to create something important for the world – I need to create something important for me. I don’t need to be rich or famous or even published (though it would be nice). I simply need to know that the words I pull together are worth my energy. Writing simultaneously feeds and exhausts my soul. It’s an exhilerating feeling, but I need to accept what I write as being more than just words on a page.

I like to think about the things the psychic said to me and hope that she was giving me truths. I heard her words in my mind this evening as I wandered tiredly from the bus stop to my apartment, arms weighed down with groceries so that I can spend my days off writing without having to leave the house for food.

Now, as I write, I look out over the floating city I can see from my window. The ocean reflects the yellow and white lights that glow along the sides of the stationary ships that spend the night between Singapore and Indonesia. It’s a million-dollar view, or so I’m told, though I was most attracted by the size of the room and the location of the apartment (and the fact that my flat mates, when I asked about having guests, didn’t suggest that my guests would steal from them and therefore make things “awkward” between us – oh yes, house-hunting was fun … ).

As I look out at the lights floating on the water, I remember more of her words:

“Having a home is important to you,” she frowned as she turned a few cards and then looked up at me with a smile. “You must live near water in order to find your happiness and complete your work. Water, Stephanie. You must live near water.”

V is for Vagabond

I’ve felt like a bit of a vagabond for some time … Maybe it was the first taste of what it was like to arrive in a country without checked in baggage back in 2008-9 when I visited Dublin for the first time, or maybe it was the 2010 almost-year of wandering about without a job or fixed address that really did it for me. Regardless, it sometimes feels strange to wander about my apartment and realise I have flat mates sitting on the couch watching TV while I fold laundry or have a vague sense of displacement when I step off the bus to meet a co-worker for lunch before work.

It feels good to be settled. Even though my books are in boxes in another country and my favourite items haven’t seen daylight for several months because they’re packed in tissue paper and bubble wrap, I still feel like I’ve managed to make a home for myself here despite the small time that has passed since I arrived.

For over a year I kept telling myself I’d get around to buying a proper desk when I had a better idea of where I’d be since I was living month-to-month, and I would commit to a phone contract when I knew I’d definitely be in the one country for the bulk of the two years required, and I managed to convince myself that it was better to stay single since it meant no one was tying me down if I wanted to flee the country at short notice. And yet, for over one year, I was in one place. Sure, I travelled a bit for work, lived interstate for two months, and attempted a relationship … but I was in a fixed place for over a year. Despite this, I couldn’t admit that I was settled. Rather, I didn’t want to accept that the place I was in was where I was going to stay (literally and figuratively).

It’s very easy to look at things in retrospect. The funny thing is when you realise that you’re still partially living back there, too.

I found myself looking at a gorgeous jewellery box at a store this afternoon and gently placed it back on the shelf after reminding myself that I’ll have to move and the more I accumulate now the more I’ll have to transport later, blah blah blah same-old story. I walked out of the store and immediately felt regret – regret for not purchasing the jewellery box and regret for the thoughts that indicated I feel my existence is – still – temporary.

I slipped into my vagabond ways quickly – habits take a long time to break. Despite having my lovely bed linen and my coffee machine, my head spins at the idea I’m “settled”. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it or even like it, it’s that I am in a different place – literally and figuratively – and I have to change my thoughts around this. My contract is temporary when placed in the “grand scheme of things”, however it’s also more permanent than anything has been in my life for quite some time. Sitting on the bus to go to work, I realised that it was not just a jewellery box I had put back on the shelf. It was a gorgeous vintage-style porcelain jewellery box printed with French words and old-fashioned stamps.

So I’m going to go back and buy it when I’m next at the store, because if I leave that jewellery box on the shelf and continue to keep my jewellery in the recycled Ferrero Rocher box by my bed, I’ll never take my commitments seriously. Not to mention the fact that I need to take myself seriously. Grown ups don’t keep their treasured jewellery in chocolate boxes, right? Well, maybe the quirky ones do, but surely no sensible person would choose a chocolate box over a gorgeous taupe and gold porcelain jewellery box?

I’m here for two years. I already feel quite settled and once I banish the habitual thoughts of “in my next apartment … ” or “when I leave this place … ” perhaps my habits will change, too. I don’t want to be a hoarder but I also want to stop compromising on the things I want. Yes, there will be a “next” apartment, and yes, I will leave this country eventually. But right now, this is my life, and I’m going to enjoy every part of it. Especially the jewellery box by my bed and the knowledge that when I do move it will come with me.