the other side

what you might have seen

Late May, 33 degrees. I lean my croissant-softened stomach against the parapet of Pont Neuf and take a photo of the sun setting, fairy-floss pink and gold. My phone pauses, considers, balances, presents me with a high-definition memory. This will be a hit on Facebook. I upload it immediately, even though it’s not yet dawn in Australia.

I’ve been picnicking on the cool emerald carpet of Square du Vert-Galant, drinking cheap rosé, wearing a floral singlet, basking in the smug grandeur of our first real summer’s day. Softly spoken men offered to sell us things to accentuate our pleasure : cold Heinekens for friends, velvet-petalled roses for those who might be lovers. My fellow picnickers bought beers while I wondered how deeply the thorns would cut our palms if we took the flowers instead.

what you did not see

I was lonely when I took the photo, a vast echoing loneliness that stretched forward into the rest of my life. Old friends, friends with whom I could let down my guard, friends with whom I didn’t have to think too much, were distant and indistinct. New friends seemed impassably far off, protected by frontiers of language and culture and old friends of their own.

It took a year of expatriation for the shadow to fall; to make my way for the first time into the dark place behind the monuments and the cafes and the train stations. The place of isolation. The sad place of a stranger far from home.

You think a lot, in that place, about how things used to be: how comfortable you were, and how good you were at your job, and how you earned a decent living, and how you mostly sounded intelligent when you spoke. About how people didn’t listen to you speak with an infuriating mix of pity and concern. About how there were girlfriends you could call when you needed a dance or your Tinder date had murdery eyes or you just wanted to lie in the sun and say nothing.

You think about how tired you are, of filling in forms and asking people to repeat themselves. Of smiling too much, of laughing too easily, of wearing the wrong skirt and feeling eyes follow you the length of the metro platform. Of being not right.

And then, once you’ve started, you can’t stop thinking about other things, too: about the phone ringing in the night for someone to say, I’m sorry to wake you, or, Get on a plane, or, I’m so sorry. About what a bother it would be for your family to fly over to pack up all your things.

There’s a temptation not to document the unphotogenic side of expatriation, an unwillingness to admit it’s not all Instagram-ready. To admit there are days when you eat the last of your Vegemite and listen to ABC Grandstand and refuse to leave the house. That you’re living a real life, not just having an adventure.

What can’t be seen

I stay late underground, in a quiet bar whose stone walls lean in to inspire confidences. I make a new acquaintance. I learn a new word. I sleep long and late, until the restless adventurer in me has the energy to whisper,

tomorrow I will try again.

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