Thursday, July 02, 2015

Divergent

A few years ago, an aura-reader I talked to in a serious error of judgement said sadly: “I’m sorry, I don’t see it”. I’d asked her the inevitable question of “Will I be married? Will I be loved?”, fully expecting in reply the usual variation on “Que Sera Sera”. It was a bit startling to get a flat no.

On the other hand, I never had a picture in my head of a wedding, or a vision of who the future partner would be. Some introspection before I turned 40 revealed that I had nevertheless been certain of a home and family. And the reason my age bothered me was that I had no new picture of the future to replace the expired one I hadn’t even known about.

Until then I’d been perfectly happy being single, but I started to become conscious of it. Ten years without a date seemed abnormal; I didn’t fit into the social frameworks of my peer group. Wrapped up in secure coupledom, friends gave me ridiculous reasons for why I was single. But I’d had plenty of opportunity for observation, and knew it wasn't about what you looked like, your BMI, IQ or point of view. I’d seen all types hook up eventually. Except me, of course, so the lady was probably right.

Now they’ve started to tell me I should adopt a child, as if a child were a hobby, or a validation exercise. I smile and nod and read another book. Because it has always been more interesting to read a book. Looking back I see I must have been a terrible girlfriend. I’ve always worked better as a friend.

Now at forty two, I can finally accept myself with relief. I think too much. I take things too personally. I’m too anxious about doing the right thing. I store Allen keys and spare buttons. I read manuals, company newsletters, annual reports and the chairman’s speech. I get excited about the stuff I learn there. I’m kind rather than competitive, because I sense what people are feeling before they recognise it themselves. I’m loyal – never blindly so, but completely (and this is often uncomfortable for the recipient). Above all, I am always, fundamentally, the girl in glasses who will leave you without a backward glance for a book. There’s nothing wrong with that. It takes all kinds.

Sure, I stand a little left of centre, but I stand tall.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Just two days in Bali

Sitting in the airport, composing excited Facebook posts, as befitting someone on their way to a fabulous beach resort, I knew it was not a good time to go to Bali. It was grey and rainy, both outside and in. I did not know if I was going towards something or just away, but whatever it was, I was dragging too much baggage for comfort.

My first day there was spent on the lovely Nusa Dua beach, willing the sea to take away the crawling restlessness, the unreasonable expectations doomed to disappointment. It worked a bit, and in the evening, I drifted to Seminyak, uncertain of what was there. What I found was the happiest place on earth. A beach stretching endlessly in both directions, a row of busy restaurants with brightly coloured paper lanterns and bean bags, and beyond them the sea untouched by the artificial light, surf white in the moonlight.

I picked a place and settled down for the night, and soon noticed among the chattering groups and limpid couples, a lot of people on their own, reading. You can tell things by looking at them. The Singaporean woman with the LV bag reading Paulo Coelho is waiting for friends to join her. The Australian girl curled up in a bean bag reading Neil Gaiman is travelling alone, but won't be alone for long. The self-contained older Indian man with the Kindle is also travelling alone. He's curious about me but is going to say hello to the Australian (10 minutes later I was proved right). The South African lady on her iPad is not reading at all, but browsing or checking Facebook. She's hoping she won't be alone long either, and she won't, but it's going to take till later in the evening. The man reading a Dutch book is recently heartbroken. I don't know what conclusions can be drawn about me, alternately observing, writing, reading and texting, like the Recording Angel’s PA afflicted with severe ADD.

Much later, in a surprising development, the Indian guy stopped to say in passing: “You’re a Bruce Springsteen song, but I’m in a Katy Perry sort of place.” I wished him well in his endeavours. As he walked away, a voice behind me said “Wanker.” I turned to see an old man covered in tattoos, a much-used surfboard leaning next to him. I told him I agreed with his reading. And he said he hoped I wouldn’t now feel the need to ask inane questions about whether he surfed or where he was from. I said I knew he was from Adelaide or thereabouts. He looked so startled, I explained I use to live in Vietnam. He agreed there were a lot of Australian accents there, and moved to my table saying “You’re going to need help finishing that bottle anyway”. And so I had a relaxed hour with an 80-year-old surfer, listening to war stories, what Seekers concerts were like in the seventies, the rigours of removing landmines in Cambodia, how to run a winery in Barossa Valley, and the life and times of his grandchildren. I told him my dad used to grow grapes for a winery, and discussed the differences between hybrids and genetic modification. He was waiting for his wife to return from a spa. When she (unsurprisingly young and Asian) returned, she showed me her shopping, recommended the spa she went to, ordered another bottle and told me what it was like to grow up in a rich family in Myanmar. I told her the stories my grandaunt used to tell us about being an expat there long ago, when it was still Burma.

By the time they left, the beach was full of music, some people were dancing, others were still surfing. And I saw with relief that the Recording Angel had got the memo, and the South African lady had found someone.

At midnight, I stood for a moment at the entrance to the road and looked back with deep satisfaction. The sea rolled massively in and out, the notes of guitars rode the sound of surf breaking, the perfect place and time. I watched a lone lantern rise lightly, happy to glow within itself. Not all those who wander are lost.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Heavy suitcase, light heart

Found this blogpost that I wrote exactly three years ago today, the first day I landed in Vietnam. I took the photo at the coffee shop I was in then. It went on to become "my place" in Saigon.

I have often paid excess baggage. It is impossible for me to go somewhere without six pairs of shoes and three bags. A profusion of other accessories. Laptop, two phones, external hard drive and all their attendant paraphernalia. Extra adaptors, back-up headphones, 57 pens (all but the worst one get lost in the ride to the airport), skincare for various parts of the body and times of day, specialist hair care. All of this is somehow doubled on the way back.

But in my head, I travel light. I carry no pre-conceptions, bring no personal agenda. I leave self-destructive habits and personal existential angst at home. I need about a week to pack the smallest suitcase but my mind is travel-ready in about fifteen minutes.

So when people tell me I am brave to come out to a strange country at short notice, I don’t know how to be sufficiently modest – to be effectively self-deprecating, you have to believe the compliment is true. The truth is you don’t need a lot of courage to get on a plane that’s been booked for you, be met by a hotel that’s been pre-arranged for you and work in an office exactly like all the others you’ve known. Within an hour of landing – in the middle of a long weekend –I got a call from my new boss’s PA, asking if everything was okay. It was.

Yes there’s a language to get familiar with, there are cultural idiosyncrasies that you have to recognise and accept. Even more important, you need to be able to separate those from personal behavioural traits. You need to find out where things are and how they get done. It’s not hard to do, it comes to you in the course of living every day. And it will come to me here too, in this unexpected, wonderfully exuberant city that I never knew existed till a few hours ago.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

After three months in Jakarta

It’s hard to get a grip on Jakarta; there’s too much of it. Its not easy to reach around from point A to point B, or any other points – it’s often not clear which is which. Even the food is hard to pin down and understand. Perhaps this is how people feel when they move to India – you sense there is more to the cuisine than the familiar names in restaurant menus, but you have no quick way of getting to the bottom of this. Jakarta is a very big city, with so many levels of life that you spend your first month or so just being overwhelmed. So much so that you give up trying to get your bearings and just take it an hour at a time. But this is the only way to do it – you don’t assimilate, Jakarta absorbs you as you are. One hour at a time.


I had my first inkling of this three weeks ago when yet another flood enlivened my evening commute – I didn’t even look up at the main arteries turned to canals, let alone switch on my phone camera; I simply discussed an alternative route with the taxi driver, and then carried on reading my mail. It wasn’t until I got home that I registered that I was able to contribute to that discussion. Somehow I’d been oriented and inducted into which roads were likely to be dry, which sheet of water would be shallow enough to drive through. 


Indonesian people are unfailingly good-natured and quite philosophical about the hundreds of little daily privationsLike in Vietnam, the priorities are right – it’s family, friends, food, getting together as often as you can, the nurturing of relationships of all kindsThe closeness of client-agency relationships is unlike any I’ve seen anywhere else. (My expat client and I are slowly but surely moving to this highly social model, both of us sensing that greater things can be built on this base than the more formal kind). As in all places where you can’t take anything for granted, the strongest, most efficient infrastructure is your network.


76 active volcanoes are strung along the length of Indonesia. Not a day goes by without some activity in one of them – this is no more worthy of headlines than the biblical rain that can pour with little warning out of a clear blue sky.  Alert levels rise and fall, magma ebbs and flows, and life goes on, exhaling and inhaling with the earth itself. Perhaps it's the largeness of that spirit that flows through the Indonesian approach to life.


It hasn’t been too long since I left Vietnam, do... Well, actually it's almost a year but it feels like I left last month. So much has happened so fast that there are days when my taxi arrives somewhere and I alight with a silent nod because my mind is cycling through "cam on", "terima  kasi", "shukran", "xiexie", "thank you", and is not able to select the right one. Anyway, as I was saying, it feels like I just left Vietnam so I’ve thought I was too bruised to appreciate something new. But I was wrong.


Now, as I wait in Singapore for a visa change, I feel that same surge of wonder and gratitude at the way my life twists and turns, and keeps flowing ever onwards along scenic routesMost of all, I find with pleased surprise that I am impatient to get back home.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

“What is it like in Vietnam?”


I am asked this a lot, with genuine curiosity. It’s hard to answer. There are no words that convey the exuberance of life in Saigon. So I’ve fallen back on one-word platitudes and a bright smile.

In the past six weeks, I’ve handed over one job, and started another, left one house, found and moved into another. On a Friday evening, I sent out some mails before shutting down my computer. The following Monday, I started up and sent some more – in another country, to another client and team, on another account. The farewell parties flowed into welcome ones. The stakes are bigger now, the demands greater - this is what I came for. My strides are longer, my time is shorter, and none of it is unexpected. I’m getting things done, and moving forward to the next one, making lists on my phone, in my notebook, on my whiteboard, and checking off the items. I’m too busy to indulge in sentimental wanderings. But all the time, at the back of mind, a river flows and a people wait, practical, optimistic, kind, ready to be remembered whenever I have a moment.

On my hurried way out this Friday morning, I finally remember to check my post-box. Among the mall magazines and utility bills is a surprising envelope with a Vietnam stamp. The handwriting is familiar. At 7:30 am I stand looking down at the postmark that says Saigon, balancing a banana, laptop bag, post-box keys and a phone still open at my first email of the day. For a few moments, I’m blinded by sunlight on an unruly river that breaks its bounds as often as it can. Crowded by equally unruly pavements full of people. I sit at a dining table on a patio by a pool, where lunch parties don’t break up until after dinner. I chase rainbows down picturesque alleyways, and find them. I’m disarmed by friendliness, fortified by acceptance, up to the challenge in a land that speaks a language I can never hope to grasp.

My phone buzzes, recalling the day – I stuff the envelope into my bag and get on with it. Several hours later, I look inside to see the twin babies I had assumed I would see a lot of, except they arrived late and I left early.

This weekend I go looking for a river. Now I sit on Robertson Quay, so lovely in the evening light. The accents around me are varied enough for me to relax against. It’s here, in a place that was always my favourite part of Singapore, peaceful in the mellow light, under the big trees that catch the river breeze that I finally let in the feelings for that unlikely, chaotic, magical place that smiled back at me. That’s what it’s like in Vietnam.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

What's up with Singapore lately?

I keep telling people something's happened to Singapore. Nobody takes me seriously, but I'm right, it has. There's a definite increase in what I can only call random acts of friendliness. People in office buildings now actually make eye contact sometimes in the lift. They've even said "good morning", and held the door open. I saw it with my own eyes.

A taxi driver was apologetic that his card machine was not working, rather than complaining that I should be carrying cash (which used to be the usual practice). We went to look at a house recently, and someone in the neighborhood walking his dog stopped to talk.

My new neighbors took the trouble to introduce themselves. A ground floor tenant chatted about her troubles concerning pizza delivery and locked gates. Someone by the pool asked if I was the one who recently moved in on the eighth floor. They're on the sixth. What sort of place is this where tenants know what's happening elsewhere in the building? People you pass on the street smile at you. Last night, I walked past a private party in the garden of the building opposite mine and was invited to join ("just say happy birthday to that guy over there"). This friendliness had a simple explanation - they'd all clearly emptied several bottles of wine by then - but still...

On the train, people occasionally look up from their phones. Three years ago one of my sources of amusement was the public service ad about reporting anything suspicious that played over and over again in the stations. I couldn't see my fellow passengers noticing even someone carrying a sandwich board announcing criminal intent. But now, people talk on the train. There are times they don't even trample you when getting on or off. And today this happened:

Someone sat down next to me, and I was distracted from the game on my phone by the title of a book in his hand: "Jesus Hopped the A Train". As soon as I looked directly at it, he asked me anxiously: "Is this the A train?" I said "I don't think they have letters". He said "Oh that's a problem, they say I'm supposed to have hopped the A train". I looked up properly at that, and he said: "I'm Jesus. Do you not recognize me from the photos?". I laughed and said no. He nodded wisely "Ah that's because I shaved my beard. I did a Gillette commercial." I said that was probably it. I also pointed out that if he was Jesus he could call the train whatever he wanted. "No," He replied, "I don't have that much authority anymore." And then got off with a friendly wave at the next stop. I grinned at my game and continued.

Really, something's happened to Singapore.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

If you were a young adult in Bangalore in the early 90s…

Disclaimer: There are many Bangalores from that time, and this is just one of them, but they all shared that certain something.

You saw Jerry McGuire in Symphony, and Pulp Fiction in Blue Moon. You’ve seen at least one Disney movie in Rex when you were a kid. You remember a long-ago drive-in your parents used to go to. The version you saw in Grease on a VHS tape was both completely different and vaguely familiar.

You went to shows in Chowdiah Memorial Hall, Ravindra Kalakshetra and Guru Nanak Bhavan. You went to European film festivals at Alliance Francaise and Max Mueller Bhavan. You had a British Council Library card. And you still have a book somewhere you never returned to Eloor Lending Library.

You had steak at Shezan and apple pie in The Only Place. It’s still the best apple pie you’ve ever had, though you’ve become fussier about steak. You ate pasta at Casa Piccola, and you know by now it bears no resemblance living or dead to any pasta anywhere else on the planet, but you’re going to be sentimental about it if it kills you.

You had Hot Chocolate Fudge at Corner House, lychees and cream at Lakeview and gulab jamun at Bhagatram’s. You had Chinese at Chung Wah, Rice Bowl and Ginza. You didn’t have sushi anywhere, ever. You didn’t know it existed.

You ate biryani in a lot of places, but the best was always at Muslim weddings.

You can’t look at Central Mall now without remembering scrambled eggs on toast under the trees in Victoria. And thinking of Victoria automatically leads you to Koshy’s.

You’ve spent years learning one or more of these – Bharatnatyam, Carnatic music, any Indian instrument, the complete playlists of Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi and Mukesh.

You went clubbing to The Club. You drove there in a car crammed with too many people. Which is why your kids’ lives are that much harder now. You also remember a converted iron foundry called Lee Dance Furnace. And tea in Russell Market afterwards, sandwiches at the Taj Coffee Shop, kababs in Fraser Town or rolls in Fanoos, depending on what time you left.

But when you said the Club, you meant you were swimming, playing tennis or snooker, going to the library or hanging out on the lawn.

You’ve been to a Christmas Dance or a Mayflower Ball. Or both. You’ve jived, waltzed, breakdanced, done the Birdie Dance, the Macarena and the Vanilla Ice thing. You’ve looked doubtfully at the Lambada.

New Year’s Eve meant at least three parties to hop to. And you’ve rounded it off with breakfast at Airlines Hotel.

A fancy “going out” mostly meant somewhere within the area enclosed by St Marks Road, Dickenson Road, Commercial Street and Richmond Road. You know about the drag races on MG Road late at night.

You remember being kept on a fairly short leash by your parents, and not being given very much money, but you’re reading this list and thinking that you seemed to have done a lot anyway.

You remember bars named Underground and Black Cadillac that seemed like fabulous high-life at the time. You knew people then who were openly gay and it was just another strand in the regular fabric of life. You knew at least one person who was in a band. You knew aspiring artists, actors, directors, writers, fashion designers and models. You’ve since watched several of them become famous.

You remember when Bangalore was India’s most liberal, laidback city. That’s the India you take with you when you travel, and what you mean when you’re so happy to say you’re from Bangalore.

Friday, June 13, 2014

An underwhelming Cannes 2014?

It’s one of those years where two exciting things in my life come together – the FIFA World Cup and the Cannes Lions. Both generally build my exhilaration and energy to fever pitch.

But just as the World Cup opening yesterday was less than satisfactory, the Cannes entries so far are strangely dispiriting, with good ones being exceptions rather than the rule. Last year, almost every shared video or magazine list made you go “I wish I’d done that”. There were so many new ideas, so much creative fearlessness that it was simultaneously wonderful and terrifying, made you proud to belong to the industry and fired a fierce determination to do something like that at least once in your career. Usually they fall into four categories:
1. Pure creative genius, the joyous insanity of a good idea.
2. Fantastic brand or consumer insight wielded with consummate prowess.
3. Pure brand building, the celebration of a glorious brand.
4. Social change effected using 1 or 2.

But 2014 seems overwhelmingly to be the year of the Awards Entry Video – and these seem to be sticking doggedly to a formula that was great four years ago. Now, the music, typography, animations, transitions, cuts, pans and zooms, the very structure and script are all dully familiar. In the digital entries, there seems to me to be too many cases of technology for its own sake threatening to overtake idea, insight, even brand. This should not be the arena, surely, for apps or games in and of themselves? Just because it has a brand name attached to it, doesn't mean it's a communications tool. This is what the entry rules have to say about the Mobile category: "The definition of Mobile for the purpose of Cannes Lions is creative work which lives on or is activated by a mobile device, app or mobile web." Cannes Lions is first and foremost - should be only - about the advertising idea. That's the immutable core of our business. How the idea is expressed changes according to where the relevant consumers can be best reached. And it's that magical combination of idea and delivery that builds brands, sells products, earns loyalty... and wins awards. Ideally.

Of course, I've hardly seen everything that’s out there, so maybe I’ll be proved wrong next week. I sincerely hope so. Until then, thank God for automobiles, alcohol and New Zealand. They never disappoint.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The mystery of friends

Coming from a large and close family, I’m sociable and easygoing (at first), so I tend to make a lot of friends everywhere I go. At least, that’s what my theory has been so far. But the truth, I think, is that it makes me look for family everywhere I go. The wonderful thing is that I’ve found it, over and over.

There are always the precious few friends that cross over into that closer relationship, only these are bound by faith and some undefinable thing, instead of blood. The three most precious friendships that began in Dubai have survived traumatic life changes, the long distances between us seeming only to bring us closer. Ditto with the close friends from much younger days in India. I met one of them after fourteen years of leading separate lives, and we picked up the rhythm like it had never been broken. As indeed, it hadn’t.

Last week, I had dinner with a dear friend who’s close to giving birth. As always, we had plenty to say to each other – our conversation ranges wide across the world and deep into our minds. Nothing is too big or too small to laugh at over steak and mango yoghurt. No news is left undiscussed, whether the iniquities of China or the opening of a restaurant down the road. No life plan goes pale for want of airing, from the buying of a cushion to the planning of a holiday to the probable child-rearing requirements for twin boys.

And yet we didn’t know of each other’s existence until two years ago, when my introductory Skype session with an unfamiliar team was marked by hostility and resistance, except for one hopeful voice in an unfamiliar accent. Unfamiliar, because I hadn’t come across too many French people till then. Now, I can practically identify regional accents from France, because in Saigon - unaccountably shunned by my compatriots - I found a “home community” in the French. That’s the amazing thing about friendship – it shines a light on family in unexpected places, similar relationships that wondrously need no shared origins, let alone genes, to justify or sustain them.

A few weeks earlier, this same friend and I were eating questionable ice cream, and both of us concluded that it tasted like the beach ice cream from our childhoods. Except that one beach was in Normandy, the other in Chennai. We can only assume that there’s a worldwide cabal of beach ice cream vendors, with strict membership rules.

A year ago, I walked into a bar and said hello to someone I’d been introduced to months earlier and never met after. But by the end of that evening, some spirit in each of us had recognized something kindred in the other. She grew up in St Petersburg, has led a life very different from mine and was born when I was already an adult (though my aunt says I was born a teenager, and I suspect I haven't done much growing since). Anyway, she’s as much family now, as the fond cousins I have shared all my life with.

At some point in the dinner last week, I wondered if, 40 years ago, my parents were eating mangoes with friends who were a week away from having their first baby. Tomorrow, the kid who would have been five months old at that mango-eating jamboree will get on a plane to join the fortieth birthday festivities of the one that hadn’t been born yet. Friendship begets friendship, and we grew up to be close friends, independent of our parents’ association. I can only be grateful.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sailboats and wishing wells

It’s not the saying goodbye. If you’re an expat, you already know how to do this; it’s one of the first things you learn and you get a lot of practice. It’s the not knowing if the relationships you send off with ceremony, celebration and the deepest good wishes will make it across time and space. You’ll only know a month or five later when you’re still Whatsapping every three days, or barely featuring on each other’s Facebook newsfeeds. And you can only hope that if it’s the latter, it will be an equal moving on on both sides, and nobody will be left with one hand stretched out awkwardly. Both parties will move on, find new connections, new rhythms. Whether the old ones will adapt and survive is anybody's guess. You take a chance on loving them, they take a chance on loving you*. And that’s about all you can do. Maybe that’s why expats seem to drink so much more than any other group of people.

*I didn’t invent the lovely line, Katie Melua did.

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