I was very excited to hear that, this week, an old friend of mine, who has the accolade of being the person most postings have coincided with (Stavanger, London, The Hague) was coming to KL for a trip. We arranged to meet for lunch today and her friend, American Marta, was taking us to a banana leaf restaurant in Brickfields.
As is always the case with proper ‘old friends’, even if you see them rarely, you discover that it takes less than the time you need to give them a hug to feel as if you’ve never been apart. It’s like that with Glenda, who is Australian.
The banana leaf restaurant is in Jalan Scott. It is, apparently, so close to where we live that we could walk there in a sticky half hour. I’d never even heard of it but was keen to explore. Long pale grey formica tables, fringed with white plastic ‘garden chairs’, now slate grey from overuse, filled the simple room before us. Three banana leaves, crudely torn, were placed in front of us, three women with parallel lives, from three continents, two of whom had never met before.
“These are your plates,” Marta explained.
I looked around me at the fellow diners and noticed how they were all eating with their hands. Holding their fingers close so that they resembled something between a clothes peg and the bud of an hibiscus flower just before it opens, they expertly pulled and pressed white rice in from the lower slopes of the carbohydrate mountain before them and up and over the dahl that crowned its peak until they had made a white ball that enclosed a secret spiced lentil surprise at its core. I hoped that we would be offered cutlery. I didn’t fancy getting turmeric stains on my cream trousers. I wish I’d thought to look it up on wiki before heading out.
Waitresses, smart in forest green shalwar kameez, wandered the floor, carrying trays filled with little plates of meaty curries for us to choose from, while a range of vegetarian dishes were laid alongside rice mountain like four colourful foothills. A crisp papadam was lain askew on one of the foothills, like a mortar board on graduation day. We got cutlery and we dug in. It was delicious, of course.
We fell into easy conversation and soon we began to talk of friendship. Only that morning I had heard that one of my new friends, from my eight-month-old writers’ circle was off to Perth. A week earlier I had heard that an even newer writers’ circle friend was off to Brisbane and two days earlier I’d learned that my walking and G&T appreciating friend from our condo was off to Singapore. Three in one week seemed hardly fair and certainly not so soon.
During our ten minute speedwrite at writer’s circle this morning, Gabrielle wrote beautifully about the tough things we have to go through as we lead this supposedly charmed life in the expat bubble. She wrote of the way we look up at houses where our one-time friends once lived and long to see a friendly face at the window. I know from the wise words in a great book I am soon to publish, written by a psychologist and school counsellor, that it is indeed as hard on the mover as it is the movee, the one left behind.
But there, as I was absorbing the news of three departures, I met someone who might, before long, become a new friend alongside one I’d known for 18 years. We shared a simple delicious meal and recognised another of the delights that is to be found in this vast city. You see, despite the hardship of losing friends again and again, there is still joy to be had out there. It almost compensates.
“I need to have ten friends, I realised,” Marta shared with us, a shard of papadam on its way to her mouth.
“Ten?” I said, incredulous, doing a mental tot up of how many I could lay claim to, really, who were actually staying around, after our measly eight months here. I calculated I had two. Mind you, I am only counting those I feel I could call on in a crisis. I can, however, lay claim to having more than ten new phone numbers on my Malaysian phone.
“Sure,” she said. “Because there are always one or two who are out of town and a few who are leaving. Having ten to call on means there is a good chance of having one who is actually available.”
Ten friends? It seems such a tall order right now. But actually, I think she is right. I had better get to work!