Six months ago, when I was living in Melbourne, I wrote myself a post called Dear Sophie, six months from now. I’m a sucker for nostalgia and went back to read it as soon as my calendar hit May.
As my past self anticipated, I cringed a little reading back through the post – it’s sweetly contemplative and a little over-the-top – but also felt a rush of gratitude as I read. My 2016 self was also right in thinking I’d forget the myriad little details that made up that patch of my life, and I was grateful to have them back – especially with six months’ perspective.
When I wrote that post, I knew I was moving to Timor, but was only just turning my mind to the fact – and I hadn’t told anyone yet. I had sort-of low-key real-casually started “seeing” someone (a telephone romance spanning 3000km that didn’t quite include the literal aspect of seeing a person), Hilary Clinton had just lost the US presidential election, and I’d earlier that week taken a dramatic late-night tumble off my bicycle and was feeling bruised, tender and scared – about the move, the election and the future as much as the possibility of bike-related facial scarring.
Six months on. Two doctor housemates have since diagnosed the persistent pink blotch on my knee as keyloid scarring from the fall, but everything else healed fine and I was back cycling Melbourne’s streets a week later. I wrung myself out feeling guilty for not being personally victimised by a Trump presidency for another month, then gave myself permission to take a break and channel outrage and solidarity in a more productive way. The phone romance continued until Christmas, where it reached a mutual, in-person conclusion, and I’ve since re-watched all of the third season of Arrested Development.
Six months on, I want to take a moment to reflect on where I was last year, and to pay forward to my future self the same gift November Sophie gave me with this post.
Back then. Sitting up in my recovery bed (whether I needed to recover more from the bicycle accident or the election shock remains to be seen), I let my mind wander and invert itself, contemplating politics, ethics, relationships, productivity and meaning; feeling a thud of (self-inflicted) responsibility, like I needed to be thinking those heavy topics; worrying about forgetting the tiny details of my right-now life in all that musing (as this reflection might indicate, I’ve never been very good at living in the present). I listed tiny details of those long, slow days in bed – tahini on toast and a new singlet top – and concluded by reassuring myself I had more time than my bored mind’s tail-chasing suggested – all with furrowed brow, feeling small and frail.
I was, of course, writing that to make myself believe it as I was to share its truth.
Six months on. Nineteen tabs open. Part politics analyses (part of my post-Trump outrage-channeling was finally buying a subscription to Crikey – no fake news here); part website design tools, and part articles about food security and agriculture.
I’m back at my desk at work after sneaking to Pateo for a lunchtime coffee with Laura (my second of the day, but at least I’m on single shots now). I’m wearing the zebra-printed skirt I bought at Vinnies Wembley and wore frequently those first few weeks in muggy foreign Melbourne. Now, I’m used to the humidity and sweating daily doesn’t bother me.
I’m still just as serious and self-critical as I were last year – at least in my internet browsing, or when I’m by myself. Out loud, I’ve taken Timor’s all-pervading newness as license to be silly; to delight in everything, to have a good time. I giggled your way through a lunchtime coffee yesterday (it might have been the best coffee I’d ever had!), I wave gaily to every streetside fruit seller, and every time a waiter sets down my food in a restaurant I lock eyes, clasp my hands together and chirp earnestly, “Oh, mana! Amaaaaazing!”, and I mean it.
Dili still feels sunny and new and exciting; summer holidays on speed. I’ve fallen out of routine and am impatient to get back in (the blue supermarket notebook I carry around has an optimistic list in it detailing the yoga-Tetun practise-stovetop coffee morning routine I’ve dreamed up for myself and successfully not done every morning now for sixty mornings straight), but the fluidity’s good exercise in patience and grace (as I keep reminding myself). I made my second batch of homemade muesli last week and I eat it every morning with yoghurt and green apple (expensive and imported, but a treat for a girl doing her darndest to stave off scurvy).
New friendships are slowly, tentatively shifting from polite chit-chat to proper conversation, and hysterical laughter over red wine and too-salty dhal under the whomp-whomp of my living room fan last weekend had me imagining the kind of tribe I built up in Melbourne blooming the same in Dili.
I’ve asserted my dominance over the Farol household by colour-coding the communal bookshelf.
I wear tan Saltwater Sandals and catch the microlet to work. I pretend to find the thumping pop music tinny and grating; really, I feel thrilled if it’s that do you rememberrrrr song, or Major Lazer’s Cold Water (which it is, nine times out of ten). I carry my laptop and camera and greasy sunglasses in my Melbourne Bioblitz-branded tote bag. I eat rice and limp green vegetables and sweet tempeh at warungs at lunchtime, and I stand on my chair to flick on the AC’s powerpoint when I return, dripping, to work in the afternoon (even Tetun speakers seem to use the English acronym for air conditioner here). Headphones and can you hear me now and video-off Skype connections and long paragraphed emails are my link to friends back home, and I get shyly, embarrassingly happy every time an email reply plops into my inbox. My weekly Hello from Dili! email thread is now 79 emails long.
Every night this week I’ve read before bed: I’m 50 pages from the end of Beloved Land, a critical travelogue and commentariat written by a long-term Irish expat in Timor, and as a result I’m thinking more than ever about my place as an outsider here – but, cautiously, uncharacteristically, I’m channeling that contemplation into a renewed commitment to patience and humility and Tetun practise, instead of churning in self-criticism like I would have done six months ago (it wasn’t your fault that US voters chose Trump, Soph). I’ll read A Thousand Splendid Suns next – a book I pulled off the take-one-leave-one shelf at yoga on Tuesday night; procrastination, because Shantaram was finally the next one on my list, and its heft looks intimidating.
After completing – and loving – a creative writing course in Melbourne in February, I mentally committed myself to practising short story writing this year, with the view to writing a novel manuscript within the next few. Now, I’m making that goal huge in my head, and find it difficult to read without critically breaking prose down and wondering how and whether I could write it myself. At least I’m noticing that. I’ve written one short story since and have ideas bobbing round for at least three more, but I’m becoming better and better at finding other things to do on my weekends than writing (long walks up to the coffee shop, lunches with new friends, midday yoga classes, late nights dancing and warm Bintang cans). and I’m forgetting to be patient; I’m forgetting to enjoy it.
I’m forgetting I have time, too. I feel like I need to learn all the Tetun and read every novel and rehaul the whole website and make fifty friends and stick to the blue-book list and eat all my greens and stop being bored but be ok with being bored and don’t turn the AC on but don’t melt away, either.
Twice a day, I walk though the front gate of my compound and wave hello to Angelina, the woman who runs the electricity shop that sits perched at the front of our building. She always stands up for me, even if she’s eating when I arrive, and I try my hardest to wrangle my few poor Tetun words into the captivating kind of conversation her attention deserves. She’s slim, with thick black hair hanging to her waist, and because she’s got two small children (a girl and a boy, both black-eyed and shy and smiling from behind Angelina’s knees), I assume she’s older than me, but she’s probably not. I’m going to start Tetun classes again next week, and half the reason is to have a better conversation with her.
Dear Sophie, six months from now: I hope the Dili heat seeps into your tense Melbourne muscles and loosens you up. I hope you write short stories, but more than that, I hope you give yourself permission to not write short stories. I hope you read politics and know they’re personal without making them all about you. I hope you remain giggly, I hope you keep drinking coffee, I hope you keep saying hi to Angelina and I hope you read your way through the rainbow bookshelf, even if it’s just to avoid Shantaram for another six months.
I hope you have fun.