I’m in the bedroom, packing – two days until my flight. I’m filling with familiar sensations. As my body is about to be relocated, it grips the life I’ve been living and through this act I see everything close up: indistinguishable days, become lovable for tiny details. It becomes impossible to believe I’m leaving for a month.
How’s it going? I hear Dan ask from the doorway. I have no idea how long he’s been standing there.
I think it’s all going to fit, I say, taking in his eyes.
We stare at the rucksack. I lay my hand on the folded clothes. Dan shifts his weight from one foot to the other. I try to imagine opening the front door, heading down the street with my belongings on my back, arriving at the bus stop and waiting for the coach to the airport.
Where do you want to say goodbye? I ask Dan.
He looks at me and says: on my bike, chasing after the coach.
I was seventeen when I took my first trip. I went to Paris with my brother and a lad we’d both grown up with, who was another brother of sorts. This was nothing like the family holidays I’d been on as a child. We stayed in the halls of residence with two other friends I was at school with and ate chocolate for breakfast. It was the first time a boy saw me naked, standing up with the light on – a small tabletop fan blowing on my nervous flesh.
We drank beer every afternoon and one night sat around the table in the communal kitchen, doing shots. The lad I’d grown up with was the only one doing vodka – the rest of us were secretly drinking water. He kept downing more and more, trying to keep up. At first, we had to pretend to be drunk, but then he became so bombed that it didn’t matter. I took photos as he threw up out of the fourth floor window onto a car below. This was life, surely?
Dan asks me what I want for my final supper at home.
I tell him lamb steaks and parmesan potatoes. This is a meal Dan and I constructed when we were living in Denmark, WA – our last trip together.
One of the things I’ve noticed about living abroad is that there’s a point I stop looking in the supermarket for all the things I can buy back home, and I start to really see what’s around me and cook for the country I’m in. One of the dishes to come out of the eighteen months Dan and I spent in Mexico was slender chicken fillets coated in coarse ground peanuts and chopped garlic, which I then cooked on a griddle and served sliced in tortillas with a salsa made from finely chopped green chilli, orange and onion.
I don’t know where the idea came from, but it epitomises what it is to give yourself over to another life – suddenly it begins to inform you in a way you don’t notice. It permeates your skin and changes the way you think, until one day you notice that you are moving in a way you’ve never done before. With this realisation comes a powerful, momentous rush. This is the sense of freedom that comes when we are being who we truly are, and we discover that it’s okay – more than okay. Frankly, it’s better than anything.
I’ve tried making my peanut chicken in the UK, but it’s not the same.
In Denmark, WA, Dan and I began a cook-off. I made a table in my diary where we could record who cooked what and score each other. Mostly, we were fair about the points we gave.
I made swordfish, mulberry and apricot crumble, pasta with lemon, courgette and chilli, squash and orange soup. Dan made pad thai, pad thai, pad thai and pad thai…
(We had just returned from a ‘visa run’ to Bali where we’d spent a lot of time eating in a tiny and delightful Thai cafe.)
Each attempt of Dan’s was better than the last and he was slowly making his way to a perfect 10, but then he had a lapse in concentration and undercooked the noodles. He tried to persuade me not to mark him with a 4, because he felt he’d finally found a perfect balance between the tamarind, fish sauce, lime and sugar. I pointed out that despite the flavour, the dish was inedible due to the consistency of the noodles. He accepted 4 as generous. That was when he decided to try a new dish.
The lamb steaks are soft and flavoursome, the parmesan potatoes crispy.
Not as good as in Denmark, Dan says and I smile – I remember giving him a ten for this dish.
How are you feeling? he asks.
This final day, my blood feels as though it’s been invaded, rushing through me, giving an intense feeling of restlessness. And like something you glimpse out of the corner of your eye, which isn’t there when you turn to look, I’ve had a profound sense there is something I have forgotten, which won’t reveal itself. When I think of leaving Dan for over a month, I get a sharp shooting behind my eyes and the world goes blurry until I blink several times and bring it back – the room in front of me, the house I’m abandoning. Sometimes the tears don’t all go back to where they came and one escapes, rolls down my cheek.
We are creatures of habit, Dan and I agree. It’s an anxious job to pull out of the routine, the comfort zone. But something always makes me get on a plane, even though the first few steps – taking my rucksack out of the cupboard, organising my affairs so that I don’t return to a landslide – are a wrench.
So, why do I travel? There is something inside me that wants to search. I feel fear, but at the same time a keen desire to explore the sensation – and in identifying it, understanding more of myself. By travelling the globe I travel my own arteries. Continents are organs. I explore the outer world to know more of within, and in doing so the two become closer until one day I will simply be part of the world – not separate, alone, but the same as whatever is around me.
Planning a trip all works beneath the surface – the fact that I’ve been taking bookings for my workshops, but for some reason not fixing anything in March. Suddenly, this free month is a week away, asking. I take off on my bike and arrive at Trailfinders, sit down at a desk, take a deep breath.
Dan and I walk to the bus stop. It’s drizzling gently. The last two days have been the sunniest of the year. The sudden emergence of Spring has intensified my feelings of leaving. Smells and sounds, which have lain dormant during winter, have provided a sensory banquet – shortcuts to memories, a profound sense of hope so that I have to ask: do I really want to go? But the ticket is booked, and I know that such asking is the body, fearing change. So, I move into the fear, to know it better, waiting for it to become familiar and no longer frightening.
I look up – the sky has closed over again. Spring has had second thoughts. The rain is like a whimpering as Dan and I wait at the bus stop. We think we have ten minutes to amble in our talk, tock the ball of our feelings to and fro, but then the coach appears round the corner. Although it’s indicating to pull in, it’s not slowing down. We’re at the wrong stop.
The two of us gather my bags and run down the street.
The coach pulls in and I make it on board, buy my ticket and have just a moment to jump back down to the pavement to hold Dan for one last time this Winter.
I love you g, he says over and over in my ear.
He holds his hand over his heart as the coach drives away and I watch him through the window, knowing my smile must look peculiar – all twitchy with grief. The world goes blurry, though this time I let the tears come.
But there’s something else too: as I wipe my cheeks, I feel it – this lifting of whatever it was that has been weighing my blood down these last few days.
America, I think. America. Places I’ve never been.
By the time I get to the airport, I am light, alert. My senses – the really keen ones that are put away during every day life – are coming back to me. Now, I’m walking to the gate. I put my headphones in my ears and select D for artists. There are three songs here that Dan has spent the last few days recording – even though he’s had a cold. I press play and after a second of silence I hear him sniff, which makes me laugh. The chords begin softly on the guitar. I can see his long fingers strumming, his wrist relaxed as his hand moves up and down. Here comes his voice: I hear you whispering just out of view…
Worth Checking out
I couldn’t talk about food without mentioning the lovely Sugarness who is kind enough to feature some of my recipes, along with her own wonderful creations.
A huge thank you to Chalkdust Fairy for nominating me for the Sunshine Award. Rebecca’s blog truly is sunshine.
This week I’m reading Paul Auster ‘True tales of American life’, which is stunning. It’s worth buying the book just for the first story!