"You Look Happy"
Last week, two of my friends separately said to me; “you look happy”, and they were compliments I didn’t realise I needed until I received them. Firstly, this is not a blog about people putting on a brave face and appearing happy on the outside and feeling miserable on the inside. I genuinely am happy and it was the recognition of this fact by my friends which meant so much to me. I suppose in order for this to make sense, you’re going to need a little background. And so begins a blog entirely about me.
I’ve been living in Cambodia for almost three years now and for two of those years I shared an apartment with someone who became my closest friend. We simultaneously did everything together and had healthily separate social lives, if that is even possible. When she announced that she was returning to the United States to go to Grad School, I knew my life would change irreparably once she had left. It was this knowledge that made me begin to think about what I wanted to do next and how I needed to change my life in order to continue living happily in Cambodia.
As an expat, I am more than used to friends coming and going from my life. But this one was different and I knew I was not going to be able to simply replace my outgoing flatmate with another and continue on my way. In fact, our apartment was one of the main problems. I knew I didn’t want to continue living there without my friend. Over the past year, long before my abandonment loomed, I had been contemplating moving to the sleepy riverside town of Kampot, about three hours from Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Not only is this a beautiful place, surrounded by stunning countryside and the town filled with amazing restaurants filled with other nature-loving expats, but my charity also works closely with a school down here. It seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. And so, I didn’t miss it.
Less than a week after I said a tearful goodbye to my friend at the airport, I was trundling down the road, two rattan chairs and a bookshelf strapped to the roof of the school van I’d borrowed for the day, heading to my new home. House, in fact. Turns out money goes much further when you live in the provinces. It took a few days for me to unpack, for my cat to stop hiding behind the bed and for my computer to be set up in my new ‘office’ (otherwise known as the spare bedroom). It was a new start. New house; new community; new lifestyle (slow and laid back). I even acquired a new skill; how to ride a motorbike, something I had avidly avoided doing for the past three years and yet now I’m zipping around all over town.
Kampot is a popular place for expats and locals alike to spend the weekend. I found myself down here once a month before I moved so it didn’t surprise me that during my first week in town I received messages from three separate friend groups informing me they’d be down that weekend. When I first announced that I was moving to Kampot and living alone, people looked at me like I was mad. “Isn’t it too quiet?” “Won’t you get lonely?” “It’s so boring out of the city. What will you do?” And yet, the lifestyle I now have is perfect for me.
I write for a living. I spend eight to ten hours a day in front of my computer screen, occasionally taking my laptop out to a riverside restaurant or (like today) a spa so I can enjoy newly painted toenails while I type this for you. It’s a tough life, I know. So my weekdays are packed with words and thinking and research, with quiet evenings reserved for solitary reading or watching TV with only my cat for company. And then the weekend comes and people from Phnom Penh descend, all spewing their jealousies about how I get to live in Kampot all the time while they’re just visiting for the night. Because who wouldn’t want to live with this on your doorstep?
It was last weekend, when a large group of Khmer friends came down to Kampot when, individually, two of them commented on how happy I looked. “You look happy” they said. The last time they had seen me I was still moping around about my friend leaving. And don’t get me wrong; I’m still sad about that. But this change, the move, it was exactly what I needed. It’s a fresh start, a new beginning, in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the good fortune to visit. And now I’m not just visiting, I’m living here and finally getting back to being surrounded by nature, just as I was in England all my childhood. I’m happy here. It’s new and it’s different and it is going to take some time to make friends. But that’s ok. Because until that time, I have my cat and my books and I’m living in my favourite place in the world. Of course, I’m happy.