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Saturday, September 17, 2016

There's a corner of a foreign field that is forever ...


When in a moment of badly misdiagnosed "homesickness" I decided in 1985 to turn my back on the expatriate life and return to Australia, I forgot that not only had I changed but also Australia. Like other returning expats before me, I found it difficult to settle back into an "ordinary" life and moved from place to place in an attempt to recapture some of the old lifestyle.

And yet, at no time did I ever consider not to return home at all. Other expats did. Even after their work was done, they remained overseas, hiding out in some exotic backwater in small and ever-shifting communities of the planet's "homeless", languidly killing time like characters in a Graham Greene novel. Some had been so ill-treated and badly wounded by life that they stopped the whole struggle and decided to stay away from home indefinitely, live in a gorgeous house for $200 a month, perhaps take a young local woman as a companion, and drink before noon without getting any static about it.

All they were doing was seeing to it that nothing serious would ever be asked of them again. They were not bums, mind you. They were a very high grade of people, multinational, talented and clever. They used to be something once (generally "married" or "employed"); now they were all united by the absence of the one thing they seemed to have surrendered completely and forever: ambition. To quote my favourite writer Joseph Conrad: "... in all they said - in their actions, in their looks, in their persons - could be detected the soft spot, the place of decay, the determination to lounge safely through existence." Needless to say, there was a lot of drinking.

Many had made a mess of their lives back home, and so they decided they'd had it with Western women and married some tiny, sweet, obedient local girl. They thought this pretty little girl would make them happy, make their lives easy, but it was still two human beings trying to get along with each other. Some had their hearts broken, others just their bank balance.

Of course, those exotic backwaters aren't the worst places to putter away your life, ignoring the passing of the days. Most expats, when you asked them how long they'd lived there, weren't really sure. For one thing, they weren't really sure how much time had passed since they moved there. But for another thing, it was like they weren't really sure if they did live there. They belonged to nowhere, unanchored. Some of them liked to imagine that they'd just be hanging out for a while, just running the engine on idle at the traffic light, waiting for the signal to change. But after several years of that they started to wonder ... will they ever leave? Conrad again: "Their death was the only event of their fantastic existence that seemed to have a reasonable certitude of achievement."

Long Sunday afternoons spent in their lazy company, drinking beer and talking about nothing, could convince you that theirs was not a bad life. Just as long as you didn't fall asleep like Dorothy in the poppy fields of Oz and dozed away the rest of your life with them!