We are always living in twilight. So it goes, though no one knows you like they used to do. Have a drink, the sky is sinking toward a deeper blue. And you’re still all right, step out into twilight. So I stumble home at night like I’ve stumbled through my life, with ghosts and visions in my sight. We are always living in twilight. – The Weepies
I came across this photo when editing others on my computer last week. It is one of my favourite shots of London. I took it from my balcony more or less just before I got married and left the city. It was during twilight, the best part of a day. I’m a night owl and this time brings with it a winding down from busy days, a meal to look forward to, conversation, a good film, book or even writing. Twilight also means a period or state of obscurity, ambiguity, or gradual decline. I probably was in such a state when I took the photograph, although I didn’t know it. And this is not necessarily negative but I realised how much had changed in me, how the fog of that twilight dissipates the older I get. Awakening is one of the perks of ageing! I thought back to when I first arrived in London, suitcase in hand, when I was 19 years old. Where had I been just before?
At 19, I had finished my last exam and was walking back to my boarding school house in Surrey for the final packing up of my room. A friend reminded me of a school trip to Peru happening in the summer. I hadn’t wanted to go. Whilst my peers wanted to start travelling or take a gap year, I didn’t. I was tired and perhaps a little jaded. I just wanted to start an independent life. In any case, there I found myself in a rundown pension in Lima. The proprietor was an elderly woman called Nelly who was absolutely thrilled to have us. She spoilt us and tried to communicate animatedly. She had a stunning and comprehensive collection of Princess Diana memorabilia. I surveyed it in silence. The Princess had died just a year ago and I remembered the international outpouring of grief that followed. It was sobering to finally understand what I had not appreciated at the time. Nelly insisted on taking us to the bus stop when we left. She fidgeted when we boarded before weeping a little into her handkerchief. I cried too as we waved to her. This triggering some difficult flashbacks.
By the end of trip we must have looked a sight. We stayed in a village which warmly opened their school to us where we could lay our sleeping bags on its floors. Our clothes were filthy and a group of us went down to the river to wash them. We had some hand washing powder but it was hopeless. We just couldn’t get the hang of it. As if on cue, some local women appeared from different parts of the village. They took our clothes from us, washed them, rinsed them, took them away to be dried and returned them to us folded the next day. How sheepish did I feel? Incidentally, I never got the smell of the Peruvian river out of my clothes, though they went through the wash cycle plenty of times. A smell of roots, earth and musk. Some things never do wash out.
Landing back in Heathrow, it was goodbye to all that. A delayed adolescence began, as they say third culture kids experience, although I don’t think this signifies immaturity. If anything, TCKs are more mature than their peers but there was certainly a fresh period of plasticity and inadequacy. My 20s were the decade of having fun, scrambling to get a hold of my passport country, finishing my official education and laying down the foundations of my career. But it was in my 30s that a tap seemed to turn off. And in that silence, I felt my feet on the ground. Childhood a hibernation or dreamscape. I mourned the girls interrupted that were me. I grieved for what I had not been allowed to love and lost. If TCKs are children that countries build, we were also children that people built. I suddenly heard them again, these people. When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear. They have formed my perception of an interconnected planet.
I left the United States at the age of 12. It was in this country that I learnt to read, a very special kind of wiring. Not long before moving, I went out with my best friend there and a friend of her family. I don’t recall her name but the woman was a Quaker and dressed in the style of Conservative Friends. I would learn that the clothes she wore not dissimilar from the costume of the English Quakers. They would cross the Atlantic Ocean from my homeland centuries ago, persecuted for who they were. She was one of the few I had time to spend with and I was in awe of her. I had heard about them from school lessons on The Underground Railroad. She took us to a bookshop.
“Girls, I’ll buy you each a book,”
I ran to the Sweet Valley High section and picked the latest one.
“I can buy you that,” she said. “But instead of a book you’ll forget, how about a book you’ll remember?”
“How will I know?” I asked, anguished.
So off I went to look more deeply at the books on offer. I chose Dragons in the Waters by Madeleine L’Engle. It was about a group of children who meet on a boat and sail to Venezuela. On board is a mysterious portrait of the country’s liberator Simon Bolivar. I lost the book during relocations but I would remember it a decade later when I met a Venezuelan in London. He would later become my husband.
“That looks like the one,” she said, smiling.
I still try to choose those books today. I came across many like this lady, those who scaffolded and built met up, those who didn’t break me down. A man who has had particular influence on my life was a soldier, my cross country coach from the school on an American military base in Turkey. We ran 3 races in Ankara, Izmir and Incirlik. I lost the first 2, always just behind the winner but he never berated or shouted like the other coaches. He was quiet, contained and thoughtful. He asked me questions about myself. He responded to my frustrations, never reacted. He found different running exercises for me to do, discussed what I should eat or how much I should sleep. I think he sensed that running was something sacred for me. It was a space where I could release and meditate. Being an adolescent is hard enough and I was a British girl in Turkey, reeling from a fourth international move. I was going to school with children from close knit American military families. My father wasn’t a soldier. He was an aid worker working for UNHCR. Though happy at the school, I did feel awkward and longed for their sense of community. On the day of the championship, it was to him I ran straight to, exhausted and the winner.
“I can’t believe it!” I said, shaking my head.
“I can,” he responded
Back on the base I was with him near the border fences of this giant, almost transplanted American town. It was sunset and I looked far out to the horizon.
“What’s out there?” I asked
“Syria,” he said.
He then turned to one of his colleagues joining us.
“Iyi akşamlar,” he greeted
This is Turkish for Good Evening. Feel the twilight but enjoy ascending from it too.