I have just helped my mother move home.
This wasn’t, in a bigger-picture way, a Big Move. My mother spent 25 years living abroad in different parts of the world, where she often didn’t speak the local language and didn’t have any help. This move – her last, she says – contains none of the bewildering complexities she must have handled time and again.
In her years in Dhaka, she has lived mostly in the same neighbourhood. Her new, current residence is two streets down from the house where I was raised in my early years. This is familiar territory.
But on a more mundane level, this move has been inexplicably epic. I am doing a brilliant impression of a zombie at the moment, thanks to my adrenal-fatigued tired-but-wired state.
I’m used to moving countries and homes as well. I was always baffled that moving is considered to be one of the most challenging life events, up there with bereavement and divorce. It took me 24 hours to set up a three-bedroom apartment in London from scratch, including hanging up pictures and mirrors. It’s been a fortnight into this move into a three-bedroom apartment in Dhaka, and I’m only just beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s not just the Stuff, although there’s plenty of that too. Out of the 162 large boxes excluding furniture packed by our movers, my personal items took up, oh, four of them. And two of them contained family files and papers.
It’s a new apartment building with none of the usual cranky characteristics of an older, more worn place. And yet!
The humidity and intense heat here wears everything down. Electronic goods abruptly give up and die. Wood expands and contracts with the weather, making drawers and cupboard doors either too loose or too tight. Leather goes mouldy in the monsoons. Dark spots appear on light coloured items, and white spots appear on dark items. Everything needs constant attention and repair.
Every day there are countless workmen traipsing through the apartment. Wearing pyjamas at breakfast hasn’t been an option; they arrive early. I feel like Truffaut’s film director character in Day for Night who can’t walk down a corridor without being asked by the set decorator or the costume designer, ‘Would you prefer this one or that?’ – the days an endless stream of making decisions.
There are men (they’re all men) polishing all the old wood furniture and carpenters building new ones. Upholsterers refurbishing sofas and tailors making curtains. Electricians re-wiring and plumbers fixing leaks. Fans, air conditioners, lights, geysers and water filters being installed. Cable television, intercom, Wi-Fi and telephones being connected. The sounds of drilling and hammering go on all day, while clouds of dust and fumes from toxic new paint choke us. (I haven’t discovered a source for eco paint here.)
I explained the concept of ‘good cop, bad cop’ to my mother, as these are the roles we assume in any given situation. I’m the stern one, checking the fine print and holding people to task. My mother glides in, all charming and affectionate, asking what is their most favourite food in the world, and then serves it to them with tea. They’re always thrilled to see her and flee when they hear me.
What I find continually confounding about living here is that I’m not even the one doing any of the work, and yet it feels far more exhausting than when I am.
We’re also fortunate how quickly things happen here. It took a month to get an internet connection when I’d moved back to London some years ago. In Dhaka I called a cousin who made the arrangements, and I was connected the next day.
Likewise, getting this new apartment outfitted with exactly the kind of extensive built-in storage my mother wanted was made possible by a talented architect cousin and his team. As Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina says in Sabrina, ‘You press a button and factories go up.’
We are surrounded by people doing all the hard work. In addition to the day troops marching in and out of the apartment, we are bolstered by our cook who’s been with my mother for 28 years and our maid who’s been with us for 16 years. If you’ve read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books by Alexander McCall Smith, our maid is not unlike Mma Makutsi: maddeningly righteous and interrupts any and all conversations to get her point across; but her heart is exactly in the right place and she is fiercely loyal. She is up before me every morning, unpacking, rearranging furniture, cleaning. Her energy is irrepressible.
What a move – any move – does bring up each time is the opportunity for a fresh start. After all, when every piece of furniture and item we own has been examined, cleaned, turned upside down and its bottom polished, it feels churlish to not spruce up our own lives too.
Mine, as ever, entails letting go. Of stuff, of course – I cleaned out half my wardrobe this morning – but that’s the easy part. What I need to really release are other things: expectations, my tendency to always live a little bit in the future instead of the present, of wanting things done a certain way (there are various unkind terms for this, many of which have been hurled at me over the years).
Moving on can be as life-changing as those other big chapters in our lives. In comparison, moving house in easy.
Read The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, the latest in the morals and ethics No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency tales by Alexander McCall Smith.
Watch Graham Hill’s appropriately brief TED talk Less Stuff, More Happiness and take on his three rules for life editing.
‘It’s time to spread our wings and fly.’ Listen to ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ by John Lennon, from his Double Fantasy album.