Friday, 19 April 2013

Is the grass always greener?

Country, city, old world, new world, fat, skinny, young, old, single, married… viewed from one to the other is the grass always greener?
I don’t think I suffer from this conundrum any more than the average person, but it both amuses and annoys me when I find it coming up. 
Take yesterday for example: after battling through some excruciating bureaucracy this Aussie was feeling restless about how slowly things move in the old world; how hard it often is to get things done.  By contrast I was feeling proud of New Zealand for being progressive and passing the same-sex marriage bill.  On Facebook I put: “The little country next door bats above its weight again... first with women votes, first with establishment of a nuclear-free-zone, first with women in leadership roles in Parliament, first with the All Blacks... doh!  Shame about the funny accent.
Anyway it got me nostalgic for the new world, the part of the world where dress and customs are more casual, where forming queues isn’t so neurotic, where the sun shines far more months of the year, and when you put a date in your diary for a BBQ it is more often than not reliable.  More seriously, it got me thinking about the new world’s expectations around change – that, by and large, we think it is possible.  White settlers are not handcuffed by thousands of years of “this is the way we do it” but rather possess a deeply subconscious belief that we have every right, indeed responsibility, to remake the world and shape it the way we want to live.   We are hot-wired for change and an expectation of progress. 
Ironically that expectation was born in our genes by the old world who dragged us kicking and screaming down to the sunburnt country.  I suppose the Mother Country got more than she bargained for, too, when free settlers headed off to the US to build anew.  In more recent years Australia shows stronger signs of American cultural influence than English, but we are in fact an amalgam; our system of government even famously known as the ‘Washminster mutation’.
Given I have come to the conclusion I simply can not survive six months of winter again without in the future making plans for a mid-winter escape… and given how desperately I have been craving the sun in recent weeks… why, I ask myself, am I living in the old world? 
On bad-attitude days I wonder if it’s the grass is greener… most other days I simply can not escape that Europe’s depth of history, art, theatre and culture is as tantalizing to an art lover as heroin is to an addict.  Where else but London can (even a currently underemployed artist) have access in one week to the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre, the British Film Institute, the British Museum, the National Gallery and a walk across Waterloo Bridge for one of the all time great city views?  And that’s just scratching the surface… for every pub or black space is crawling with vibrant Fringe productions and exhibitions.  London doesn’t just have age, talent and tradition, it has volume. 
And that’s the thing: I have a huge freedom need.  I love choice.  I'm also curious; love (indeed need) to be continually learning.  So if I can’t afford to base myself in Italy at the moment, the heart of the old world and the place which holds my heart strings, then London is as close as I can get while ticking those hungry boxes.  And given I was born in Old Blighty maybe there’s also an organic connection.
This unusually long winter has challenged me, though, to sustain that inner bargain, for I don’t have the DNA to go that long without sunshine and the physical strain of lugging around a heavy coat.  When my sister posted images on Facebook of my favourite place in Australia, beautiful Kiama on the south coast of NSW, where I own a house, studied for my Masters, and have spent much time with my dear mum and good friends… I was green with envy.
Yet of course there’s probably nothing Alison would like more, big music lover that she is, than to come out to the Royal Opera House or the Wigmore Hall.  And that’s the thing about making choices and following life paths – it’s sometimes hard to get enough of ‘the other’ to soothe our post-choice-nostalgia or (if the longing is severe and ongoing) our post-choice- regret.  Inevitably balance is the thing for which we all long, and it’s hard to achieve when we’re busy and there are financial constraints.
Take another example: I said to a friend recently that when you are a writer you can “sometimes be too much alone”.   I’ve passed the same remark about being single.  She looked at me with a mixture of guilt and longing and said: “I know this is going to sound terrible when I have a husband, children and a job which allows me to interact with people every day… but sometimes all I want to do is hire a hotel room so I can sit in it and be alone.”   Truth be told, there is probably not a parent alive who couldn’t admit to the same longing.  “Can’t I even go to the toilet in peace” is a phrase which recurs from my childhood (or was that “bloody peace”) for parents of eight children must have long since lost the chance of being alone.  Mum still mentions when she and Dad finally got away for a six week tour of America and Canada (the kids farmed out to aunts and uncles), that Dad was homesick for us and considered shortening the holiday.  Mum stood firm.  She didn’t miss us at all.
I’m the same with the country and the city.  When I moved to Tuscany it was an enormous adjustment, living in the middle of rolling hills, no street lights, shops or adjacent houses.  I didn’t think I’d ever get used to the black, the quiet and the solitude.  Then I didn’t think I could ever leave it.   Now based in London I long for that quiet still.  I long to wake up, as I have today in the south of France, with space around me I can sense before I see it, with the sounds and smell of nature so close that it infuses my mood, bringing a deep calm and contentment even before I throw back the shutters.   I am not running around London today trying to keep up, fit everything in, doing, doing, doing… I exist only inside my own skin. That for me is the country.  Or the sea.  It is the place I must go to regenerate.
But without the city, without periods of great stimulation, would it be enough?  Clearly not, or I wouldn’t still be moving, searching.   
Yesterday when I put my arms around my brother Sean at the airport, I was so relieved to see his skin had returned to a normal healthy colour.  I was so happy to see his head crowned with a thick flock of hair.  And when I hugged him a second time I told him I was also pleased to see him with a few extra kilos.  For what is a few kilos when the cancer he has fought, thankfully successfully, will strip all colour, hair and kilos in a brutal manner if it manages to take hold.  “Better to be too fat than too skinny” he agreed.   We got into his car for the drive out to the country with our absent brother ever present; the dearly-loved brother who cancer made too skinny.
We are often too young or too old for a part we’d like to play, too young or to old for some desired experience or opportunity, but in that at least we can be certain: everyone will feel the same thing progressively throughout their lives; everyone would like to do at least some of it all over again; and everyone will learn that the alternative to growing older is to not grow old.
So, going back to the old and new world, after some days in the sun, after some weeks of spring (when it really arrives) I will no doubt make that inner bargain again and go on as before, with optimism that over the long term I should be able to love and experience both sides of the world.  There are planes after all.  And I’m lucky to be born into a generation where that is not such a big deal. 
To do it more regularly I just have to get less poor and more rich.  Damn, there’s the green grass again!