Alula started school last week in the UK.
For the last four years she’s gone to school in the jungle at a school made entirely of bamboo with no walls, a farm, a giant crystal, a mud pit and where the school song is basically a prayer to mother earth. She has also been barefoot most of her life. We had to have a boot camp the day before she started school in the UK to teach her how to tie shoe-laces, put on tights and tie a tie.
When we walked across the concrete playground and into her concrete box of a classroom in her little village school my first and only comment was an astonished: ‘Oh, look! Walls!’
I felt a sob rise up – it was made up of equal parts regret and despair. I’m not sure if Alula was as aware as I was of the difference. She was entirely focussed on holding our hands and freaking out about whether she’d be behind in maths (she isn’t, much to our relief – that jungle education has been just fine).
Almost every day so far in the UK has been a struggle – Alula not wanting to go to school, crying for her friends in Bali (something I’ve joined her in), layering on three thermal tops to stave off the bone-numbing cold, trying in vain to hold back the rising tide of admin and chores.
It’s been a painful week this last week on so many levels, softened only by the fact we have moved into the most perfect house – a 17th century cottage in the most stunning village in the Chilterns, surrounded by fields and woods (OK, also softened by cheese and smoked mackerel pate and the wondrous joy of an electric blanket). It feels like the most homely place we’ve ever lived, something so like a fairy-tale that I almost expect an old crone to knock on the door with a basket of apples, but it’s also bittersweet as we’re only renting it for six months. We can’t put down roots. I like to think there’s a reason for that. That something else beckons us onward and this is a six month gift – an interlude before the next adventure. Besides we’d need close to a million pounds to actually own a house like this.
And it’s teaching us to live in the present and enjoy every second, something I tried so hard to do in Bali and failed at repeatedly.
Half of me wants to put down roots, sink into the ground here, create a space that’s private and all ours and make it permanent (let’s forget the million pounds that would be required for a moment) but… at the same time it doesn’t feel like we could ever do that here in the UK.
I called John from the train back from London. ‘There’s so much unhappiness,’ I told him, almost unable to breathe, struggling to find the words for what I was feeling. I was thinking of the girl who had just served me in Costa fighting back tears as her boss berated her bitchily in front of me. The old lady on the train glaring coldly in the face of my smile. The bank manager whose grief and anger pummelled us across the desk. The acquaintances who spoke ten to the dozen at us about their house renovations and property prices like they were clutching desperately at straws made of joists.
I’ll take conversations about butt lube and raw food and cleanses over this.
‘Everyone’s glum,’ John said to me.
I don’t see joy here. That’s the problem. I see despair. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places.
The thing is though, in Bali, I didn’t need to look.