A month ago, I traveled to Geneva for a book signing and presentation of ‘The Disobedient Wife’, my debut novel published with Cinnamon Press. Held at Payot Genève Rive Gauche, a fancy four-floor building in the heart of the shopping/ commercial district in Geneva, it is a stone’s throw from the famous geyser in Lac Leman. It crouched at the foot of Geneva’s old town, trolleybus tracks snaking their way in parallel to the contour of the lake. It was great to meet new people, readers and fellow writers, people who worked and lived in Tajikistan, a Tajik, Azeri and an Afghan and their friends, spouses and colleagues. Mainly though, the reason for my joy found meaning in the presence of genuine, loving friends, each representing different phases of my expatriate existence.
Expatriate life can be viewed through the prism of a novel in draft form, a work of art in progress. One lives in episodes, or phases, with each posting or country; a new, challenging, exciting chapter to be lived each day, in each moment in time. The richness of the lifestyle is colored by the culture; the tastes, sounds and smells of each place. That does not mean to say that when I move, I leave nothing of myself behind. I know expatriates who seem to manage this, moving forward to furrow an endless track through time without looking back, without regrets. I have come across these. They make great friends as props in a scene, or extra guests at a party. Lousy in the long-term, they shield their hearts from the pain of separation, choosing self-defense over love and friendship.
I am not one of those. Even as I try to thrive on the movement (workplace, social circle and the material possessions of home,) my heart breaks with each move. Most of the time when I leave a country, I feel as though my soul will tear into two, the old friends sadly abandoned even as I feel a familiar, happy excitement for the new experience ahead. Tears are shed and leaving parties held, but I hold on to hope that some day, somewhere, we will meet again.
An unexpected bonus of publishing a novel has been exactly this. I reunite with friends and go for sushi with five strangers to each other from five chapters of my life.
The first: A friend – one of my oldest and dearest – my room-mate at school. I count boarding school as my first early expatriate experience, living in a strange land far from everything that spelled home. She stayed by my side for five years and together, we battled the joys and despair of puberty. She came to visit my university and supported me as a bridesmaid at my wedding. We ran together to breakfast in long overcoats to hide our pyjamas. We ate toasted teacakes and drank coke floats in Tanners Cafe. We sat in long detention on Friday nights, scribbling passages from Pilgrim’s Progress, caught with vodka and orange squash in our second year. She is still staunchly loyal and kind, my comforting pal, ever since easing the homesickness I suffered in my first weeks away.
A Croatian friend: We met in Kenya in 1998, a few weeks after I met my life partner, also her friend. She attended our wedding, patiently translating the entire ceremony for my elderly father-in-law who couldn’t speak English. Her kitchen, sweetly scented with bunches of roses hanging upside down from the ceiling. She lives in Geneva, bringing up children whilst holding down a career as a psychologist for the traumatized and mentally unwell.
An Italian friend: From life in Burundi, she is an incredible cook with a beautiful eye for interior design, a huge empathy for the downtrodden, abused women of this world, with a penchant for salt in the swimming pool to save her tan and… breeding puppies. She gave me two dogs, Vuk and Crni, my faithful hounds in Burundi and Kenya. She still has their mother, an old lady now, living with her in Geneva.
A Somali friend: He happened to be on mission to Geneva from Addis Ababa. We knew each other in Tajikistan, his children played with mine and his wife often came by for tea and conversation. She cooked us French Rabbit Stew, my first and last taste of fluffy bunnies (sorry!). He lived in Dushanbe prior to the collapse of the Soviet Empire, speaks fluent Russian and has a vast knowledge of the world during the Cold War, Glasnost and Perestroika, having lived through it.
An Austrian friend: My sweet ‘soul Mama’ yoga teacher and chill out pal, whom I knew in Cairo, a bendy athlete with her feet in the air, her children the same age as my own. She recently relocated to Geneva from Egypt. She misses the sun and her flowery roof terrace, but skis every weekend, kick-starting her career once more as a Primary School teacher.
These friends came along to the signing. They brought their friends and colleagues from work and home, cheered me on and lifted my heart with moral support, hugs and smiles. I have not mentioned the incredible generosity of old friends online, the ones from Dushanbe and Cairo who originally read the book and offered useful, detailed comments, the ones who live on every continent and share my websites, read my reviews, support me by reading my book at their book clubs. The friends, old and new, here in the beauty of Rome. They promote my work across their networks without me asking. I am lucky.
I have reflected on this since my trip to Geneva and every time, I feel a soft glow in my chest, as though my heart is held by many warm, careful hands. The fear I once harbored, that the fluidity of expatriate life would leave me without solid, lifelong friendships… utterly unfounded.
To read more about the book, please visit here