Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Expat files... I have been here before

Just as I am finally feeling really at home in Cambodia, thinking this part of our lives was meant to be after all, nearly everyone we know and love is leaving. Not all of them for good, but Phnom Penh is definitely emptying for the summer. The streets already feel very quiet and by the end of next week nearly all of Jemima’s friends who have not already left will be gone for the whole of July. They’ll come back just as we head to England for August. James will also be away for two weeks. I really ought not to complain. I have plenty of inner resources. I enjoy being on my own with the girls, it’s raining every afternoon at the moment, the house feels cosy and perfect for hanging out at home cooking and painting etc. So it has been hard to explain this strange feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach – a familiar sensation of being left behind, vaguely friendless. Until today, when it suddenly made sense. I have been here before.

It was while I was cycling by the local international school that it dawned on me. Normally I avoid that street due to the huge jam of four wheel drives, expat and Khmer, that block the road as they drop off and pick up each day. Today the street was quiet, term having ended last week, and as I passed by the school I was suddenly bombarded with some long forgotten childhood memories: school boys packing trunks and cases into the backs of Volvos and Range Rovers; a disconcerting quiet in the house and the streets, and a faint wondering about quite what I should do with myself now.

I grew up in the very peculiar environment of a famous English boy’s boarding school. Our entire lives were built around the school bell, whose ring would signal the onslaught of 750 boys onto the street every morning as I was walking to school; a sudden silence in the corridors above my bedroom each evening when prep started, and the bursting of jubilant boys through banging doors as their hour of homework was up. I often fell asleep to the sound of their thumping music and muffled conversation.

For 13 years we shared our home with 85 boys, separated by nothing more than a ceiling and a couple of fire doors, one of which led to the stairs in my bedroom (of all the rooms in this beautiful old Georgian house, I, and my sister before me, chose to make our bedroom in the tiny space under the fire stairs). Our life was so intertwined with the school timetable that the silence that fell around us at the end of each term, when the boys went home to their real friends and family, was at once sacred and lonely, liberating and unsettling. For me at any rate, these tri-annual interruptions to our normal existence, forced me confront, or preferably avoid, an uncomfortable confusion about what was my real life and society, and what was just a fa├žade.

While my relationships within, and my commitment to the expat community here cannot be compared to the encounters with school boys (who I barely knew despite sharing the same roof) of my youth, I am amazed I have not been reminded of all this before now. Ever since our family left that old-fashioned, though much beloved institution, when I was 18, I have turned away from everything that it represented, or at least all of the negative associations: private school education, privileges bought by wealth, British upper class, elitism, snobbery, colonialism, English foreign policy and so much more... I suppose the simple act of sending your children away to school could not be further away from my ideal of motherhood I write about on these pages!

And yet here I am living in an artificial, privileged community that could be anywhere in the world for all its connections with its physical location, but happens to be in Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world. I have a 'house-help', a night guard, and friends that leave each year to reunite with their family and ‘real’ friends. My father often jokes that the overseas NGO world is a bit like the British Raj in India. Mostly it is nothing like that, but it does have its comparisons.

I’ve lost my thread but it is too late to recover it so I’ll just publish this for what it is... a few memories and reflections on life and where it takes us. Just writing about it now brings up so many memories of this extraordinary childhood existence – though of course it seemed the most ordinary thing in the world at the time – that I feel inclined to shut myself away for a few months and write and write and write about it. One day I will.


Tara said...

ooh - how moving. Brought a tear.... I feel that acutely here too. Made worse by the fact that my daughter also loses a friend. T x

Anonymous said...

I cam accross your blog just by chance, but have been trying to find time to read it when I can. We will be moving to Cambodia in a couple of weeks now, with our three children aged 11, 10 and 2 1/2, so it's interesting to read about other's experiences. Could I ask you if there is anything you would advise bringing to keep the kids happy, esp. during the rainy season? Can one get most things there, like craft supplies, or are they scarce? Are you still teaching yoga?

Georgie said...

hello! Thank you for your email and welcome to Cambodia. I am not sure about the older kids but I think PP pretty well stocked on crafty things but I always stock up on non toxic paints, glue etc and then here I get imaginative with recycling rubbish.

yes still teaching yoga! Where are you coming from? And rains in PP only last a few hours at most then sun comes out so it is not too oppressive - lovely relief though! xxx