The wheel is come full circle, I am here. – King Lear, Shakespeare
In 2007, my husband and I took a trip to Amsterdam. We were living in Abu Dhabi at the time. I was immediately smitten with the city.
“Let’s move here,” I told my husband with a wink.
By 2010, we were based in France, living in a house in Picardie. One of the most frustrating things about living there was how long it took to get our driving licences exchanged. I have no idea what the bureaucrats were doing with our Emirati ones and neither did they when we phoned them up. Exasperated, my husband decided to go to the department and waited hours in a queue. He managed to track down the woman responsible. She eventually told him that she just needed more information about who we were. I ended up chasing down a letter from The British Embassy in Abu Dhabi to prove I’d lived there. My husband went to the UAE embassy in Paris and charmed a letter out of them. We were elated when we saw the pink driving licenses in the post box. It had taken exactly two years.
“Finally,” I cried, waving them triumphantly in the air.
But on closer inspection we realised they’d gotten my place of birth wrong. Instead of Botswana, I saw written Pays- Bas which is French for The Netherlands.
“Good to know I was born in Holland! But how did they work that out from Botswana?”
I was then seized with panic. Would it take another two years to clarify? We sorted the issue and forgot about it but Holland was not done with us yet. Our last year in France was very hard and uncertain. We had a new baby to take care of, my husband’s engineering company was suddenly liquidated and we were surviving on chomage or French unemployment benefit and my part time work with the British Council in Paris.
Out of the blue, an old colleague from our time in Abu Dhabi who was now now based in The Hague, contacted him with a job proposal.
“We are moving to The Netherlands,” my husband told me, getting up from his study chair. I wept with joy, first and foremost because our financial worries were over but also because I’d felt that there was some force, some consciousness that had been listening to me, to us.
So here we are in a town called Voorburg, the oldest settlement in The Netherlands. We’ve been here just over a year and I’ve started investigating where I can learn Dutch. A few weeks ago, I was using Google maps to locate a language school I was interested in. I looked up to check my location and a street name caught my eye. Borneostraat. I turned left, kept walking and came to Javastraat. A loop again to the left and I was on Balistraat. I had reached my destination. But my mind was no longer on learning the Dutch language. These place names tell me of the time of colonisers and the colonised. Indonesia used to be known as the Dutch East Indies. It achieved independence in 1945. I cycle most days down Laan Van Nieuw Oost Indie. There is a connection here to London where on the banks of the Thames you will find the East India Docks. And I am transported, back 14 years to my own time in Indonesia when I was 22 years of age.
I moved to Indonesia to take up a teaching position in Semarang on Java Island. It is the most populous Muslim country in the world. When I finished university, I had very itchy feet and it was Asia that I had never been to. I loved my time at the school and developed well as a teacher, gaining valuable experience. I also made some lifelong friends. I met a baby orangutan (man of the forest). I held her in my arms and her fingers clutched me like a human baby. Her palm identical to mine. I visited Borobudur Temple and Mt. Merapi, literally Fire Mountain. Indonesia remains the country most at risk of a deadly volcanic eruption. I was invited to the village where one of my colleagues was from. She took the picture I have used in the featured image. It is of me stroking a cat with her nephews. I still remember her father, in his 80s, coming out of his bedroom and gazing at me standing there as if I were some apparition.
“You are a ghost,” my colleague had teased.
Chickens roamed the mud floor kitchen, there were catfish in their ponds. A lime green gecko cocked his head to listen to me as I knelt down to him. The vegetation lush and the rains heavy. The food was out of this world. It is still my favourite. There was a lady who passed by my workplace most days. She carried a basket full of spinach and peanuts. She would pound the ingredients with a mortar and pestle and then layer the sauce over white rice. And of course in Holland, I am spoilt for choice. There are Indonesian restaurants and groceries everywhere I turn.
But it wasn’t all fun and games. There was an unprofessional manager of the school, an English woman. She descended badly into her alcoholism, was fired and deported. There was an office boy turned stalker. And worst of all, there was the time I fell gravely ill. I came home from work with a terrible headache and had no appetite. I crawled into bed and when I woke up, I felt as if I was levitating. I had a raging fever. A colleague took me straight to hospital where I was diagnosed with typhoid and typhus. The typhoid from the water supply. Typhus from the rats in our rundown accommodation. In the mornings, I saw them brazenly running from the kitchen. Every night, I heard them squeaking in the storage room. An insect screen the only thing separating us. But that didn’t separate their fleas which bit me and defecated in the bites they left. That’s how you catch typhus! I was bed bound for a week. I paid for a private room. The fever hard to break, I hallucinated many times and I recall a student of mine throwing herself across me, holding me tightly, pleading with me to get better. I used all my savings for the hospital fees. I had wanted to use the money to visit Borneo Island where the Komodo Dragons lived but it was not to be. I was so weak when I left hospital, I found it hard to walk and could no longer teach adequately. I handed in my notice but it was rejected. I would be forced to finish my contract. That same student who was with me in the hospital was reading more than I knew between the lines. She snuck me out one morning on the back of her motorcycle and haggled with the immigration department. She returned smiling with my passport and exit visa. She was a brave and compassionate young woman. And so smart! It was a good time to leave. A few months later, the Bali Bomb happened. The atmosphere changed. Workmates still there had to leave early as the teacher’s house was targeted with abuse.
Back at my parent’s house in France, I had some further treatment before I fully recovered. But being so sick had left a strange and sobering mark inside me. I was withdrawn for a long time. I returned to London but just when I thought I’d forgotten about it all, something would tell me not to. Like the obscure afternoon film which was showing one rainy afternoon; The Year of Living Dangerously. It starred Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver in early roles.
Indonesia. It is under my skin. It just happens with some countries. Anyone who has relocated across borders can understand this.
In the end, I registered for Dutch lessons and turned a corner to explore more of the area before going home. My pace slowed though once I realised I was passing embassies. They always seem to be gathered together like that in cities. Out of the Embassy of the Congo came some diplomats greeting newcomers.
There are patterns and themes in all our lives. No, I’ve heard people say. It’s just a coincidence. Stop looking for signs. I’m not looking for them at all, they are just there. The letters on our new postcode are my husband’s initials. When I look out of my living room window, the house numbers are the exact day and month of my daughter’s birthday. The tram stop down the road from our house is Oosteinde, meaning East End. The East End of London is my adopted home. I have come full circle.