Loving and leaving

Loving Penang

Suddenly the days have become sunnier and the trees more glossy. The food has become more addictive and the cheap massages and pedicures more tempting. I’m sure you can guess why… it’s because we know we are leaving.

Partir c’est mourir un peu say the French. We Brits say, parting is such sweet sorrow. I’d not noticed before but the French and English equivalents of this well-used phrase are not direct translations of each other. ‘To leave is to die a little,’ say the French. We Brits are more optimistic and, the way I feel right now, more accurate. For now I know I’ll leave this behind I seem to love it more. Suddenly, the birdsong is more noticeable, the swaying dance of the traffic more rhythmic, the call to prayer more moving, the caress of the water as I breaststroke up and down our pool. It’s as if life has assumed the quality of a fresco painting; the things I am noticing outlined in black to make them stand out more.

The light in Penang

For though Ian and I are set to leave Kuala Lumpur in March I seem to be happier, smiling more and loving, really loving Malaysia. Loving Malaysia so much that I recognize I cannot leave forever, that I will return, repeatedly. Ian and I are even seriously considering spending a portion of our retirement years in Penang. I mean, what’s not to like about it? Living expenses are about 20% of those in the UK. There are sandy beaches for the times we want a sundowner at sunset. There is a hill to where you can retreat for some cool air. They have two of the best restaurants I’ve eaten at in Malaysia – D’Chef Dining and Il Bacaro. There is live music, a literary festival, an arts festival, heritage buildings, fascinating people I now call my friends… And, did I mention – it’s affordable?

Weirdly, some of the things I most railed against when I arrived and took the most getting used to are now the things I will miss most – take the driving for example…

At first I was too scared to drive unaccompanied, terrified by the motorcycles that swarm like mosquitoes on the roads and can appear like bikes and trams do in Holland, out of nowhere. They lurk in blind spots and can carve you up from left or right as they treat other road users like slalom poles. And yet I have come to love the tolerance on the roads, the way I dare to push into queues and how no one seems to be in too much of a hurry to let me in. I love how I can do a U-turn where it says it’s not allowed, drive the wrong way round a car park and switch lanes at the last minute because I’ve misunderstood the SatNav. I relax into my seat and pootle along the roads these days. Here drivers anticipate the worst and make allowances. They expect cars to jump lights, swerve, fail to indicate and as a result they drive more carefully. No one gets cross because I drive too slowly. Yes, I confess, I’m converted to driving here.

People complain about how hot it is here too, and it is, but I have become used to the fullness of my sock drawer and the way these almost constant blue skies give my mood a boost. I may dislike a sweaty face but I do appreciate how rarely I have dry skin. The sun may bleach the colour out of my hair, but being blonde and allergic to hair colour these days I can pretend I pay to have platinum stripes in my ‘do’.

I used to miss tasty and affordable berries – raspberries, strawberries, blueberries – but now I’ve come to crave fragrant mango on my cereal and fresh watermelon juice to quench my thirst.

Once the food seemed to rely way too much on chilli, but now ‘normal’ food tastes bland without lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, ginger, garlic and some heat. I’ve grown to love and crave sweet frothy tea flavoured with ginger (teh tarik halia) and Penang’s famous rice noodle dish with prawns, cockles and beansprouts, char kway teow.

At least I can make char kway teow

To begin with I found it impossible to tell the difference between the local Malays, Chinese and Indians. Now, not only do I have good friends of every ethnicity, but I understand their culture and will miss their laisser faire attitude, their daily concern that I may not have had breakfast and the simple alternative answers of ‘can’ or ‘can not’ to my queries. Words and phrases will worm their way into my future vocabulary just as in shallah has become a go-to word since our years in the Middle East and loek (nice), gezellig (no translation that works for me) and lekker (yummy) since our decade in the Netherlands. Words that will lift my heart when I use them and will allow pieces of our life here to stay with me permanently, everywhere I go. Words like makan (food) and boleh (can) are as integral to living in Malaysia as honouring four different types of religious festival every year.

The first post I wrote here at Sunny Interval, was a poem I wrote about how I’d leave scraps of my flesh behind on tree branches in The Hague. As I wind down to the leaving party and the final farewells I’m not so much leaving behind pieces of myself as taking back a treasure trove of words, of memories, of forever friends and of lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, tamarind and chilli, chilli, chilli.

3 thoughts on “Loving and leaving

  1. Lovely article. We had to leave a sunny, warm climate ourselves last year and things turned to “last time we’ll be doing this” for the final weeks.

    The final one at the airport was “last time we’ll see 31C in March”. Didn’t realise that I’d still be waiting in the Netherlands for that elusive 31C for the next 11 months!


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