VI: Foreign Never Lasts

Foreign never lasts, unless you let it.

It’s dark and it’s late, and I’m sitting cross-legged on my couch under a light at least three shades too warm not to notice it.
Earlier, I got to speak to a dear friend of mine, who is bunking at a friend of hers while the hurricane brewing over her Houston home conducts the waters to rise and the wind to crescendo into blistering force. This friend of mine though, she is a light in and of herself, and, just like my light, at least three shades too warm not to notice. I am grateful for the angels that walk this earth, those with unavoidable light, enough to lift the world around them. I am grateful that living in this day and age allows me to bask in their sunshine, even when they're 9000 kilometres away.
After the call, I cut up some fresh, local broccoli, trimming it in long stems with bushy tops, tossing it in the pan and pretending to stir-fry a little forest, pulling it off the heat just when the green had blossomed into a shade somewhat otherworldly.

Life is nice. Moving here was a wonderful decision. It has barely been four weeks, but feels like years and years, like everything that’s ever happened over time needed to, just to eventually sit me on a one-way plane ride from Sydney to Vienna via New Delhi. And then south-westerly, to the one and only section of Austria I didn’t visit when I was searching for where I felt I belonged. Of course, it ended up being the exact place I moved to- a risk no doubt- but a pot of gold was sitting here waiting at the end of the colorful slippery-slide rainbow of a journey it’s been along the way. And that’s why it feels so normal- because it’s right, and I haven’t had half a second of discontentment since arriving. Additionally, not a single headache- and for those who know me, know how much of a big deal that is. My body knows it belongs here. My head and my heart inclusive. This is contentment. This- right here- this, is home.

But I think there is home all around- in the biggest of moments and in the smallest too, and I'm a firm believer in the notion that foreign never lasts unless you let it. For everyone. Lack of home is discontentment, it is feeling foreign- in a non-exciting kind of way. Foreign is how I felt as I watched a teenage girl crying on a rickety old tram in Budapest a couple months back. I'll never forget the weight it brought with it. I was wet from choosing to walk in the rain for half an hour instead of boarding a short bus at the time. Her face screwed up while texting, her eyes then filling with tears, and when she blinked they trickled down her cheeks in little creek-like squiggles of sadness. When I finally mustered up the courage to go and talk to her and attempt to offer some sort of respite, accepting defeat that the likelihood of her speaking English would be quite slim- we had already reached our stop, climbed off the carriage, she had already crossed the road, and was now on a phone call anyway. That was discontentment. That wasn’t home. That was seeing something, wanting to do something about it, but not.. and then it was too late. There is nothing worse than missed opportunities. Nothing more likely to bring about a sense of discontentment- the opposite of feeling at home.

Home though, contentment- belonging, experiencing things that fill you right up- those are irreplaceable and unforgettable, and as the days go by here, they seem to increase in frequency:
It's the elderly couple I watched in the cafeteria of Ikea. They had each bought a different type of Swedish torte, and I smiled to myself as they- in unison- held up their tiny dessert forks in their right hands, and with a swift gliding motion, cut their cakes in half, playing trade to each receive half of the cake belonging to their other half. The sweetest thing. 

That feeling of home, it also came as I was babysitting for a new friend while she and her husband went out for the night. She’s American, he’s Austrian, and they appreciate it very much when their three little boys get a chance to practice their English. So over a game of Uno, I let them know that the new rule for the night was that they had only three opportunities to speak German- so to choose them wisely, and to only do so when really needed. Three strikes, and it’s an early bedtime. It was beautiful to watch their eyes crinkle as they worked out how to communicate just what they wanted to in English, and when German slipped out on accident, how they would clasp their hands around their mouth in horror at having another strike next to their name. And I loved timing them brushing their teeth because everything’s a game with little boys and when they’re on the clock, they want nothing more than to succeed. It's as much these little things- eyes crinkled in concentration, and watching the hands of a clock dance around to the sound of teeth being brushed- as well as the big things, that make the world feel right and comfortable.

Home, contentment- sometimes yes, it is foreign- but in the best possible way: new and exciting. Driving home late the other night, the moon- golden and perfect crescent-shaped- hung from an almost-black sky, with the stars sparkling unusually bright around it. I’d never quite seen a night’s sky like that- like the way a child would paint it with dry, old paintbrushes dipped in cheap acrylics on a big piece of textured paper. That was foreign in the best possible way. Childlike and profound at the same time. Not a sliver of discontentment at the situation in sight- raising that 'home' flag once more.

That feeling came yet again on my way to the bank- on foot- as I walked by the lemon-coloured home next to mine. Music filled the air, my curiosity got the better of me, and I peered into the window through the sheer floor-length curtains. Sitting there was an old man with no hair- plonked sideways on a wooden chair, wearing a white singlet top, happily pulling apart the bellows of his accordion, organising an array of tones into a heart-tugging melody. I grinned at him and he grinned back at me, and for that split-second interaction, that feeling of being content and being at home in this part of the world- sunk even further in.

Then there was that day when all of my Austrian dreams came true. The day that really sealed the deal: 
I was driving towards an antique shop in a neighboring village I’ve been wanting to visit- winding around the bends that hug the lake with just a handful of meters to separate the road from the water. But the gate was locked, and the sign said they were only open every other day, and so I kept on keeping on- just to see what else may be hiding around the corner. And then, I saw it- a big, old house- with dirndls in a myriad of patterns hanging from the windows outside. A flea-market of sorts, in the bottom level of a home. Ha! Finally! An opportunity to invest in something that will make me feel a little less foreign in my very traditional little village, where the 5-year olds are in tiny pairs of lederhosen and the mamas have on white, frilly blouses and coloured aprons around their waists more often than I could ever imagine or thought was possible in this day and age. I rung the little cowbell that sat by the door- a way to tell the shopkeepers that someone was there to take a look- as per the handwritten sign sitting under it. Down the stairs came a lady wearing thin, rectangular glasses, a red, linen dress and a big smile on her face. Grüß Gott!, she said, and invited me inside. With a concerted effort, I was able to hold back a gasp as I walked into room after room- literally bursting with dirndls and knitted vests and traditional hats and beautiful, woolen cloaks with standing collars and ornate clasps to close them up and contain the warmth. The best thing about it all being that my colour palette of choice is exactly what traditional Austrian garments are made of- olive greens, camel browns, dark chocolates, mustard yellows and burnt oranges so close to red it is hard to be certain just which they truly are. Intricate detailing all done by hand, atop materials and construction techniques made to last the ages- which each of these second-hand garments proved correct. 

Sweet Johanna the shopkeeper and I chatted up a storm while I sifted through the racks of colours. I learned that her husband was the Pastor of the local evangelical church, that all the money raised from this market went towards helping various organisations, that she’s heavily involved with local refugee groups, that she has a heart of gold and that service drives her world. My hero. She learned that I’m from Australia, that I moved to a tiny Austrian village on my own because I wanted to, that I didn’t know a single person in my town besides my darling banker (whom I love and has quickly become a dear friend), and that I am able to speak German because of serving as a Mormon missionary in Germany. All the important things. ‘Moment! Ich rufe jemanden an!’ (Just a moment, I’ll call someone!). One minute later and she was handing me her phone, telling me that on the other end of the line was a lovely lady from her congregation, who also lived in my village. I said hello, we had a little chat, and then she invited me to visit her at 4pm the next day in her home. I accepted the invite and passed the phone back.

An hour later and there I was, with an afternoon tea date lined up for the next day, and a big bagful of embroidered wall hangings and cushion covers and linen blouses and little floral vases- alongside a weird reminder that living with nothing for the past couple years was great and wonderful and taught me so much about what’s truly important in life- and that everyone needs to do that at some point too- but also that I still really, really love homewares and furnishings and spaces and making them as nice as they can be with said homewares and furnishings (and plants! and lots of them!) and arranging contents for both functionality and aesthetics- the purpose being to make life that extra bit better, because there’s nothing to enhance the every-day more than being in an atmosphere with which one truly resonates and is inspired by.

The next day, around 4pm, I drove down the street to the home of the lady on the other end of the telephone: Ilda. It would have only been a 15-minute walk, but it was raining quite heavily, and I decided to not show up at a stranger’s home looking like a drowned rat the first time. No guarantees for next time, though. I pressed the rounded-edged-square doorbell, she buzzed me in, and on the top floor- the Dachgeschoss- where the roof is slanted and the light moves in interesting ways, she stood there waiting for me outside her door, of course clad in traditional Austrian wear in my favourite shade of green. She held out her hand to shake mine, and, deciding quickly to ignore this culturally acceptable greeting, I instead replaced it with a greeting my Polynesian genetics reminded me of: I opened my arms wide and squeezed her in a hug instead. She laughed and led me inside. And then we talked on her balcony, overlooking the lake I still can’t seem to pin a colour to. And then we talked at her little dining room table, over traditional little Austrian cakes and herbal tea. And then we talked some more, and then some more, and her dialect of German was thick but quickly became understandable as my mind adjusted to its nuances. And then we sliced some bread and she asked me to open packets of cheese and lay them how I wanted to on a plate. She stopped before starting, and blessed the food.. in the form of a song, the delicate melody giving me shivers down my arms just recalling it. We talked about families and music and furniture and the Austrian health system and how she came here and where she came from, about the commencement of WWII when she was born, of her three daughters and about how she swims every day in the lake. And how my goal to swim to the other side and back in one hit is ambitious but doable. Almost three hours later, we laughed together as we cleaned up the table and packed away the various forms of herbed salt in little containers waiting to be shaken, and organised that I will drive her to her church on Sunday on my way to mine, to save her the hassle of using the public transport on offer around here- that being hardly anything. She walked me down the stairs, and on the way I couldn’t help but grab and marvel at the perfect curtains which hung over the stairwell windows- deep orange with mid-century modern graphics splashed across it, so perfect and so nice. Actually, I wanted every single piece of furniture in her home and caught myself thinking about the lifecycle of trends once again. It’s a fascinating world we live in, is it not?

Outside, in the now lighter rain, we hugged goodbye three times, and she waved from the driveway as I pulled out of it. I have a friend in Unterach! Triple my age- triple my experience, triple my wisdom, triple my interesting. Apparently only wears traditional Austrian clothes, she told me. Sunday couldn’t come soon enough... I wonder what she'll be wearing when I come to pick her up.

Driving away, I turned the corner and had to slow immediately right down as a perfect, warm-brown deer leapt across the road and into the bushes waiting on the other side. I could hardly believe it. And just when I was about to accelerate again, out came another- this time, a little baby! The fawn frolicked uncontrollably across the road, its head turning to look at me as it went, eventually joining its mother on the other side. And then, another! A second little fawn, this one a little more under control with his movement, but still so innocent nonetheless. Oh, the joys. I almost burst into tears right there and then, but decided instead to pull over and attempt to get a little closer to them. They saw me and stood, just watching, just for a little bit, just long enough, and then all three of them ducked into the pink flower-adorned shrub, never to be seen again. I turned to go back to the car, and the sky above caught my attention- so instead I crossed the road, and stood on the edge of it- looking at the great expanse that was the sea down below as storm clouds brew over it, all misty and magical. The lake had changed to almost the same colour as the sky now- making the world feel as if it were entirely made of silvery cloud, and it was right there and then that I knew, for sure, that moving here was exactly right for me: for me and for now. Foreign didn't last, because it wasn't allowed to.

Hi. I've been keeping a journal for a very long time now. I write and I write and when I'm not writing, I'm thinking about writing. Are there words to describe the current situation? Which words suit this person, that person, those people? Can I even articulate how I'm feeling? Is there some sort of something that can be compared to the now, to help it become more understandable by the greater public? Why is recording the mundane of any value to anyone, especially to strangers? Is there worth in sharing any of this? Why does life here seem so fascinating to me? And why do I want to write about it so much?
The answer is that there is no answer, but a solution I'm choosing to pursue is to simply just.. write. And to share. For me and for anyone else who wants it. It's therapeutic and helpful and in many ways enhances gratitude and reflection and fine-tunes my own self-awareness and of the world around me. And I'm excited about it, because for quite some time there I was an avid writer-sharer, and thinking back on it, that was the time of my life I feel was most streamlined, most learning-filled, and most importantly where I was able to notice the gentle hand of divinity guiding and orchestrating every day towards an eternal destination. And I want that back. And maybe you do, too, and we can all sit on my couch under this three-shades too warm light and eat little stir-fried forests together. Bis dann.