Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Expatriate Life: Cleaning the Phone Directory

There are certain symbolic acts of our modern world that denote finality in a techno-worldly way.

The other day as I raced through the directory in my Alcatel cell phone looking for a number, I sped across a few names I realized I wouldn't be using again, any time soon.

Like sirens of a past life, the familiar names stared blankly at me from their silent roll call mesmerizing me momentarily.

As I zipped by, I knew that these numbers were never to be used again in my Kathmandu life. Although the names were dear, the friendships tender, the days spent in conversation and thought among the deeper parts of my recent years in Nepal, the numbers were no longer reachable, no longer to be dialed, no longer w/ the voices of friends on the other side -- no longer a part of my daily life in this occasionally transient town.

Yet, I had to go back, gaze curiously at those names, the cell phone numbers distinct from their home numbers, the individuals so clear and unique, the faces so fresh (Shaku n I had dinner with two just the other evening...).

Even as their numbers were no longer living, their lives were still so fragrant of aspects of my own life here in Kathmandu.

I've had this experience, this pause in life's movement before. There are dearly loved friends who have left this world whose names still remain on my email address list or rest peacefully in ink in my rarely used pocket-size address book, an archive of the pre-technological era when I left the US a few decades ago to begin my lifelong travels away.

Robin, Jerry, Buddy... these names appear, at times, when I scroll through our iMac email address book, still youthful in their presence on these electronic accessories. Still alive in my thoughts, memories and reflections. Voices that still speak to me, recalling precious, joyful times past. Vibrant yet in their perpetually undying state of existence, offering me advice and perspective on this floating, ephemeral world.

My Dad, too, still present in the email address he shared w/ Mom, 'gyndoc@...'. The father-protector-provider image who raised and cared for his four children over the decades of his middle life. Always proud of his Ob-Gyn accomplishment from humble beginnings as the son of a Russian immigrant in America facing hardship and discrimination while studying relentlessly to create a new life amidst the opportunity of the expanding suburbs, serving his patients thoughtfully and compassionately while urging his children on in the world.

Even now, two years after his return to the original source of life, Dad's favorite appellation appears whenever I write Mom or call her on Skype. Her husband, friend, soulmate, partner. My father. Still hermetically sealed in these modern monikers of identity and existence.

In many ways, I believe his spirit is recalled and renewed whenever I use that email address or call Mom in Florida.

"Hi, Dad! How's life on the other side? Just want you to know that you're still here with us... We're sending our love", I seem to say...

So I stare at these dear friends' names, Kai & Susan, Dave & Claudia, Ted & Ellen, who have temporarily migrated to other points on this frothy, distant world, Lima, Bangkok and New York (by way of New Mexico...) -- no longer denizens of this Himalayan Valley we call home. No longer just a ride away in Sita Pila or Jawalakhel or Chauni, where 'dal bhaat' would be on the table or dinner w/ friends and acquaintances with multiple glasses of wine or vodka-laced Opis in hand.

Even Leah's dearest friend, Anna, a sweet, fresh-faced girl from Iceland with whom our cherub would spend hours on the phone in the evening reviewing their homework or discussing Moshi Monsters to their complete delight, has now departed Kathmandu. Her number, her Mom's and their home #, all dormant in my phone's accessories, silent, unringable, out of imagination's reach. After a summer in Iceland, she, her brother, parents and dog will all be in Nairobi for the next couple of years. Away from Leah's near mandala, a more distant presence, a shadow, a memory of childhood's friendship until they meet again, some day.

'Here today, gone to Maui.' -- as they say.

Kai, gentle, intellectual soul. Forever seeking in his imagination and on paper to put the misplaced pieces of the Middle East and his Jerusalem childhood together again. Thoughtful, kind, innocent. Absorbed in his effort to explain history and craft it for others to understand. Alive in his academic aviary overlooking Swayambunath struggling to graft the complexities of Nepali society onto his knowledge of global events and cultures. Unending discussions on the US, Nepal, Israel, Bhutan, politics and perspective. Talisman for Sue, his worldy-wise, lovely ambitious muse, as they guide son Josh on his journey away from home. Generous to his friends, offering toasts to life at Sue's call while sharing joyful Turkey Day and Pesach holidays over the past four years.

Dave, enthusiastic, eager, dedicated, father of three absolutely adorable, smart and gentle kids. A handsome lawyer with heart, engaged in the world, involved in Nepal's political transformation, chair of the Lincoln School board w/ a boyish enthusiasm for the possibilities of life while challenging the status quo and powers that be. Loving life partner of Claudia, another vibrant, intelligent, beautiful mother-achiever with flowing blonde curls surrounding that impish, smiling face. Friends since Ez (or was it Josh...) was born while we stayed at their BKK apartment when he worked for Save. Alive, awake, charmed with the world outside the US and the possibilities ahead.

Ted, father guru to generations of students of Nepali culture and language. Ex-Chair of the South Asia Dept at Columbia, pianist, scholar, novelist of Sherlock Holmes Asian tales. Wise, witty and charming perched in Chauni casting his cold eye on the social and political games that pass for democracy in modern Nepal. Amused and amusing as he recounts tales of Nepali academics and political leaders over decades. Our Bansbari neighbor during the 1990 'Jan Andolan' (People's Movement) when an earlier revolution was in the air and on the streets. Father four times over. Husband, guide and companion to Ellen, an ambassador's daughter, lifelong discoverer-anthropologist searching the intimate realities of Newari culture and eternal ama-hood. Turning now to America for their young childrens' education.

These are the friends to whom I bid a sentimental 'adieu' as I silently chanted my friendship mantras and sacred blessings as I pressed 'delete' after their names in the Alcatel phone directory.

Whoosh! Gone-ski! A sand image swept away from the Nepal mandala!

Yet, I know they are not gone forever, just no longer nearby on the other side of my Kathmandu cell phone and daily existence. I can press their numbers again and again or let the phone ring as long as I like, but the dry, recorded woman's voice will still remain:

"Maf garne hola tapaile dial garnebaieko number ahile upalupdi hunu sukaina."

Sorry, the number you have dialed cannot be reached at the moment. Please try again later.

But, in this case, sadly, this weekend, or even next, there are no immediate laters, just the memories of the friendships that have animated our lives over the recent years to give us joy and meaning...

"Maf garne hola tapaile dial garnebaieko number ahile upalupdi hunu sukaina."


Becky said...

I think I understand what you mean. I haven't got any experience of living in another country myself but I've been on the other side of it; a close friend emmigrated a few years back.

She found it tough. While her parents were worrying about visas, expat health insurance, passports etc, she was worried about losing her friends in England.

Then, a few years ago, she emailed me and asked if it was ok to delete my number from her mobile phone. And I have to admit, for a second there something twisted inside but quite frankly, why would she need it? She'd never call me on my mobile number again, it'd cost an arm and a leg. But it was a big enough deal for her to actually ask me if I minded.

And I'm glad to say, our friendship is just as strong.

Keith D. Leslie said...

Becky, That's quite sweet of you to write!

I know what you say as it hurt me to delete my friends phone numbers here in Kathmandu -- but they did reallly leave and definitely won't be back soon, much less w/ the same phone #s. As you note, however, for most of these folks, they still remain dear friends in my thoughts and heart.

Fortunately, if we don't want to speak, there is Skype which doesn't cost anything really. We now have sons in Califorina and London, plus my mother in Florida, so we use it regularly.

By the way, how did u find my blog? Just wandering in the cybersphere? my best, Keith