A Place In Time

My mother was a fan of telling me that there was a time and a place for everything, which would usually follow with an arched eyebrow  “and this is neither the time nor the place”. It was then that I would discover that handstands while wearing skirts were unacceptable in the middle of the restaurant.

As an expat I’m beginning to learn that instead of a time and place, it is perhaps more about a place in time. I became obsessed recently with a movie called Boyhood. I watched it on the way to London, thought about it constantly for two days and then watched it again on the way home, twice. It wasn’t that there was an incredible story arc or twist, it was the fact that the movie was shot over 12 years using the same cast. Watching a seven year old boy grow into a 19 year old man over the course of two and a half hours provided the perfect snapshot for every parental cliche. It’ll be over before you know it. Enjoy them while they last. They’ll grow up before your very eyes. 

I explained the movie to friends in wonder “It was like watching a person disappear, knowing that the boy is gone, replaced with a man.” The fact that actors weren’t switched out meant there was no convincing yourself that the story got better or different. It was a case of cold hard reality. Time moves on.

For any mobile expat the most common question asked is “Where was your favourite place to live?” For years I’ve struggled with an answer. “They’ve all been good for different reasons” is my usual response. What I’m beginning to realise is that the answer perhaps has little to do with the location. It’s about stages and moments in time. Jakarta was pregnancy and new parenting, it was being green and new to expat life when it all felt so exciting and a little bit scary. Kuala Lumpur was toddlers and new babies. It was about getting better at relocating, Diwali, Chinese New Year, and having a new perspective on expat life after learning of the suicide of a fellow expat woman. Libya was preschool, pin the tail on the donkey, trips the Medina, Roman ruins, and home brewing – often living like a sailor waiting to go into shore. Canada was landing smack bang in the middle of suburbia, our first Thanksgiving, discovering This American Life and great public radio. It was about going back to the office, summer drinks on the cul-de-sac, winter tobogganing, and heartfelt goodbyes. Houston was learning how to say you were wrong about somewhere: great people, easy life, beautiful home, a surprising amount of Obama signs in front yards, a slightly intense school, and the best hole in the wall Thai food restaurant just down the street.

What it really was though? It was a baby, a toddler, a child and a tween. The journey has involved a small face at every juncture. Why are they doing that Mum? What are they eating? How come we moved here? What does that sign mean? Who is this Ghadaffi guy anyway? Each moment in time as sacred as the place we happened to be in. Each moment representing who we were at the time, what our family looked liked right at that moment.

Looking back at each location is a reminder that that particular family has disappeared, we’ve morphed into something else. As we’ve walked into each new kitchen, new school, new life – we’ve changed, never to be the same again.

With each move, each time had a place, each place had a time. It’s impossible to return or go back as it will never be the same.

Where was your favourite? I miss them all.

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