Wednesday, 05 December 2018, 16.29 pm by Bagus Ari Saputra
In 2013, one of my first acts as manager of Gayatri was the purchase of this painting, along with one other in a similar style by the same painter (Nyoman Sujana). We agreed with my mother that the main element severely lacking at the time was the one women feel more strongly, that of niceness. By this I mean something that creates an atmosphere of warmth, the feeling that a place is being cared for, and that one is wanted and welcome in it. We agreed that my father’s style was a bit heavy-handed, too functional, and, for whatever reason, even the artistic touches tended to have a gargoyle-like element of grotesqueness, whether through bulging eyeballs, razor sharp teeth ready to pounce, or a monstrous obesity.
Therefore, holding a few million rupiah in cash from the previous day’s income, which my father would have kept had he been alive, we headed to the local art market. After looking through the usual generic paintings of farmers working the rice fields, a chimpanzee doing something amusing like listening to music, and the terrible virus of abstract art that is causing a minor epidemic in these parts, we found a little enclave of a shop with gold, silver, and brass statues and some nice-looking paintings. We quickly fell in love with the style in two of them, which had a western single figure focus and appreciation for proportion but featured characters from Hindu mythology in front of a fantastical background of ghosts, demons or heavenly clouds. Best of all, the faces were pleasing, beautiful.
We wanted the pair but then terror entered our hearts. My father had inculcated a belief in us that we were terrible bargainers and always overpaid for everything. “Why so expensive?” followed every purchase as regularly as the passing over of money and creation of a receipt. Now we were paralysed: how much did we need to bargain off the price quoted to us? Could we trust our judgment, amateur as it was, of local art and its value? Were we sure these were not cheap knock-offs or replicas?
We spent about half an hour fighting over about 500,000 rupiah, with various exaggerated facial expressions of shock, disgust, pleading, and cunning smiling, and turned our backs to leave a couple of times after making a last take it or leave it offer. It was the kind of show that my father, looking down, would have approved of, and therefore, having got that out of the way, we proceeded to take the two paintings home with us after handing over, if I recall correctly Rp 4,500,000.
We had plain walnut frames put on them with black lists to bring out the lovely soft shades of yellow, orange, gold, and pink. We hung them in the stairway of the East Building, the one of Saraswati on the first landing, and the one of Sita on the second, where they still remain, providing some respite to the nightmarish countenances of our Barongs and Garudas.
Saturday, 01 December 2018, 14.41 pm by Bagus Ari Saputra
Putu Ica Cantik, receptionist at Gayatri, and her second child, a beautiful, rich-haired baby girl. Photograph: Ni Kadek Stoodewi/Gayatri
“Can I ask something of you?” the young girl with the sunny disposition from Silakarang asked me one morning before I was due to fly to England. It seemed to be a time of promises and requests: I had promised to go to a friend’s wedding, the staff jokingly asked me to bring them souvenirs, I promised I would be back soon. “Even if it is a little bit crazy,” she added. “But you don’t have to do it. I just want to ask.”
I laughed. What could it be? She was six months pregnant. She couldn’t be asking me to be the godfather to her unborn child, that’s not a thing here. “What is it that you would like, Putu?”
“It’s just a little thing,” she said, stretching out the i in little and holding her index finger and thumb together and squinting her eyes. Whatever it was, it wasn’t so small it would fall out of her mouth without prevarication.
“Yes...” I spurred her on.
“Putu [people in Bali often refer to themselves in third person in conversation as it is considered more polite] would like to ask, that later when Putu gives birth, if the child is a boy, Bagus will give Putu a hug. Is that possible?”
Now, a bit of background on this. Hugging, how shall we say it, is not really my thing. When I was at school, I found end of year events excruciating because of all the compulsory hugging at goodbyes. I didn’t know what the etiquette was. With a girl I found attractive, I wasn’t sure how much bodily contact was socially acceptable. I didn’t want to overdo it and risk coming across too keen. So instead I hugged some vague airborne outline of her, as if she was electrical barbed wire I was trying to circumnavigate. The fact that I was a serious bacteriophobe didn’t help. My sisters also have many years of first-hand experience of my hug-avoiding and awkward hug-execution.
I don’t mind them now but I still think one’s personal space is a boundary that needs to be respected. A few years ago a recent hiree, a flirtatious young laundress, poked me in the stomach playfully as part of a conversation that had taken a light turn. It might seem like a small thing, but I found it inappropriate given our respective positions. Later, after she had got into fights with other members of staff about what her responsibilities are (and are not) and did not show up for a scheduled shift, it was not a hard decision for me to let her go. They acted to confirm suspicions I had about her character.
As humans we all need to touch and be touched. The contact of another person’s skin releases serotonin, a social bonding hormone, that makes us feel more empathy. I have heard it said that the tragedy of aging is no longer being the object of anyone’s touch. Caresses, kisses, hugs are expressions of happiness, but also cause it. However, everything has a time and a place. Physical displays of affection don’t belong in the workplace, and while the question of what exactly constitutes sexual harassment is not easily codified (is all touch out of the question, for example, which sounds a bit extreme, and where is the line between joke and emotional or verbal abuse?), I see the matter as being quite simple: if one party feels harassed, the other party, whether he is doing it intentionally or not, is doing something wrong. Another way of saying this is: if you are not sure where the line is, don’t even go near it.
I have very consciously over the last five and a half years taken steps to create a work environment where everyone feels safe, knows that we have a zero tolerance towards harassment (firing on the spot for any perpetrators), and that their person in respected.
In Bali, hugging is not an accepted form of greeting as it is in the West. To congratulate, one would offer a handshake. To greet, one would place one’s hands in prayer in front of one’s chest. The same for goodbye. As a result, I have never hugged one of my staff. This is why Putu considered the fairly innocuous request for a hug “a little bit crazy”.
What was I to say? She said she was very keen to have a boy (her first child, now aged two, is a girl) because it would mean that she would have provided an heir, someone who will take care of the family compound and temple and eventually take over the duties and responsibilities of the family towards the village community. Moreover, if she succeeded in her wish, she said many times, her child-bearing days would be behind her.
This conversation from a few months ago ran through my mind as I drove to her village to congratulate her on the safe delivery of her second child.
When we first arrived, we were greeted by her mother-in-law and husband, who were busy making canang offerings, which they sell to a stall at the local market. Eventually Putu emerged from her room bearing a small creature in a small light green blanket in her arms. Her arms were much bigger than before, her face much wider. Yet she also seemed much lighter and happier. The last time I saw her, she complained each time she got up and seemed in a state of near constant discomfort, as if she were carrying a heavy load. Which she was, of course. But I mean mentally as well as physically. Now, even though it was days after the birth, she was relief personified, radiant with motherliness, and on her countenance the most genuine, natural, happy smile (if she were a superhero, that would be her superpower).
“So you don’t have to deliver on the promise,” she said.
“What promise?” her husband asked. Brilliant. How are you going to explain this one, Putu? I never even agreed to it. She mumbled something, the conversation moved on.
I asked if she was disappointed at having had another girl, as I expected. She was ambivalent. “You can’t be,” I said. “Imagine being born into the world, and being a disappointment before you have done a single thing. Being considered a wrong through no fault of your own. That child will feel the negativity and be affected. You can’t let that happen. This girl might become great, greater than any man, if you just give her the chance.”
“A superwoman like her mother?” she asked. This was an in-joke. There was a small group of girls at Gayatri for whom no task ever seemed too big, so Putu and I termed them the Superwomen.
“Yes, a superwoman like her mother,” I replied. “Do you mind if we take a photo and share it on social media?”
She gave a short delighted laugh of acquiescence. “Only four days old and already a model!”
Wednesday, 28 November 2018, 6.35 pm by Bagus Ari Saputra
Ketut Bagia Astawa at the Palace of Versailles. Photograph: Bagus Ari Saputra/Gayatri
“Bapa is in intensive care,” my mother told me over the phone on the 10th of May 2013. I was in the middle of the final exams of my last term of university; my mother, who had been serving as my father’s primary caregiver for over two years, was with him at Puri Indah hospital in Jakarta. I only had two more exams and had to make the call of defer and fly straight to Indonesia, or wait the few days, finish university, and move to Indonesia for good. I knew that there would be a lot to face in Bali in the event of my father’s passing, not least the threat from my uncle and the prospect of a messy fight over the inheritance. I instinctively knew that if I left England now, it would be a long time before I would be back. Besides, my father had been in and out of hospital, including the intensive care unit, several times in the past, and always survived. “Mom, I will sit these last two exams, and then fly straight out.”
My last exam was on a Tuesday, I packed all my things on the Wednesday, flew out of London on the Thursday, arrived in Jakarta on Friday night, and on Saturday morning at 9 am my father passed away.
When I saw my father on the hospital bed, I was shocked. My mother had said it was bad, but he had always found a way of cheating death before. But this time I could tell was different: when I arrived he was unconscious, unresponsive, being kept alive by tubes and machines. His breathing was heavy, irregular, and desperate. Not on occasion, but every single inhale, every single exhale. Only the whites showed in his eyes. His limbs had lost all strength and content and were limp, useless. I remember thinking: he looks more dead than alive.
I stood there, motionless. “Say something, speak to him!” my mother urged from the sidelines. “He has been waiting for you. The palliative care nurse said that patients in his state often can still hear even if they can't respond.”
I did not know what to do. What good were words? I was fairly sure that he could not hear us anyway. On the off chance that he could, but if I am honest more to humour my mother, I started talking. A bit hesitantly at first, telling him that I had arrived and finished my exams. Then I told him that I had now moved back to Indonesia, as he always said he wished I would do. At this point, I fell into the natural rhythm we would have when we spoke on Skype, where I would talk about what I had been doing and things that I thought he would like to know and just assume he was there somewhere where I could not see nodding, listening, and taking an interest in his only son. I told him Manchester United won the Premier League, that Michael Jackson passed away, and David Beckham retired from football.
“Tell him it is okay for him to let go, that he doesn’t need to hold on if it hurts too much,” my mother butted in, curating the conversation as is her style (she should really have been a playwright, as she loves to write dialogue for other people). I know her intentions were of the noblest kind, but to me it felt a bit rude to tell someone that, as far as we are concerned, if he wants to die, he should go on right ahead. Especially if that person is my dad, who refused to acknowledge the possibility of a world without him up until the very end, signing up to a twenty-five year hotel timeshare scheme a few weeks before passing away, and the year before buying a house with payments extending five years into the future. The message was clear: I am going nowhere.
Again, to humour my mother, as my father had not responded to anything so far, I said what she requested. I said if he is in too much pain, he can let go. I said that I will take care of the restaurant and the bungalows, and make sure that Dadong (Balinese for grandma) is okay. I will make a big ngaben (cremation ceremony) like the one you made for Pekak (Balinese for grandpa) five years ago -
“Aaaaaarrgghh,” a wail of anger and pain interrupted me. Had my father just responded? Why had it taken him forty-five minutes? Or was it just a coincidence? But if it was, why did he utter that sound exactly at the point in the conversation that he would have hated most, a direct reference to his mortality? I continued in a different vein now, more careful, more talking to him as opposed to just at him, paying attention to all the smallest signs of his body. He made one more grunt, but it was smaller, and did not come at a point that would have animated him if he were conscious.
The following morning, we were on a plane with the body headed for Ubud. When we arrived, the whole village was on Monkey Forest Road to receive us. Many of the female relatives were crying. The atmosphere was intense. We carried the body to the Bale Daja (North House) of the family compound, where it remained for ten days until the cremation.
There were a thousand small things to decide. Who would sleep in the Bale Daja? When is the next auspicious date for a cremation? Did we want to enter him in the village mass cremation at a later date or do a private one sooner? How do we cover the body?
Eventually we made it with our things into the house. I took my father’s room, my little sister her own, my big sister and mother were in the master bedroom downstairs. The businesses were still open, so that night I collected the money at the close of the evening shift. In less than a week I had graduated from university, moved country, lost my father, and started my first job.
Some might have thought that sleeping in my father’s bed, wearing his old clothes (the ceremonies required that I wear traditional Balinese clothes and he had a handsome collection), and being in his spaces would have felt morbid but to me they were my connection, the only physical one left, to him, a way to feel that he is still present, and a way to show my love towards him, because I was looking after what was important to him.
The room I had taken up, which he used to live in, expressed exactly the kind of manner that you might expect from a maverick snake-charming former gangster, amateur magician, and businessman: there were rings with precious stones, gold chains, a vial of liquid with a scorpion in it, a shark’s jaw and headbone in a glass case, about fifty different keris (ornately decorated ceremonial daggers), antique batik, a brass bracelet with a dragon’s head, a tiger’s tooth on a string, and rocks ranging from lava through crystal to smooth dark granite. There were papers, letters, documents, folders, certificates, albums. I looked through them. It was unbelievable. Letters from my mother from before I was born, laminated photographs of us children from when we were young, hand-written prayer instructions, and two whole albums of my father living the life in France, one of which included the above photo of him at Versailles. I felt like the characters in the film The Hangover, surrounded by the most unlikely collection of objects, with no idea how they got there, trying to piece together a series of events to which we are not privy based only on the clues left to us.
I never knew my father visited the Palace of Versailles (the album also shows him variously in front of the Eiffer Tower, at Notre Dame, sitting at dinner at the house of a French family, and relaxing in a private garden). He never spoke about it with me, never told me who he stayed with, how he knew them, and how he ended up there.
What else did I not know about him? He had just died but for me, it seemed like the process of getting to know him had only just begun.
Thursday, 22 November 2018, 3.08 pm by Bagus Ari Saputra
Ubud in the early eighties. They seem like more innocent times, with more natural hair-dos and a familiarity with farming equipment. Photograph: Bagus Ari Saputra/Gayatri
I found this photo in my father’s safe. My first reaction was “That cannot be the Ubud football field... can it?”. I asked Ayu Urati, one of our staff members who has worked for Gayatri since 1998, and she said that it is, and that the photograph was taken by Lani, a Dutch tourist who used to come to Ubud and left a whole batch of old pictures some years ago. A whole batch? I only found two.
How strange it is to see the field full of grass (it is now more yellow than green because of the dry earth and lack of care), lined only by coconut trees and other vegetation (now all the trees are gone), with just a few simple looking houses, which must have been family dwellings at the time of the photo, visible in the back (now there is the blue sign of Pondok Pekak Library & Learning Center, the big red, black, and white letters of XL Shisha Lounge, and the blue and white space of Sjakitarius, which is either a charity or restaurant or both, I was never able to figure out). It is also quaint to see the ricefields showing their yellow tops in the south-east corner of the field (on the right of the photograph), since now all you see in that corner is a concrete wall that separates the football field, the South Ubud Community Hall, and CP Lounge.
I look through all the faces. A couple I can identify. The pink shirted man on the left is Pak Jon, a gravelly-voiced, kind-faced policeman with a penchant for badminton, who on some mornings can be seen jogging the perimeter of the football field at a leisurely pace. The same one who showed a bit too much interest in my little sister for it to be included within the normal realms of small talk. The one in the middle with the red and white Ganesha shirt is Nyoman Yoga, who served as the village head for traditional affairs until a couple of years ago. A few others I recognise, but I don’t know if what I recognise is the people themselves or the faces of the current generation in their forebears.
I checked the back of the photo for a date but there wasn’t one. Pak Jon is in his mid-fifties now and in the photo he looks to be in about twenty so my guess is that it was taken about thirty-five years ago, in the early to mid-eighties. Which would explain the big hair a la George Best or The Beatles (and underlines the international nature of hairstyle trends, as if you come to Ubud now all the locals will have short backs and sides with longer tops, a style officially known as “the hipster”). You can also tell that it was taken a long, long time ago because the current generation of Ubudians wouldn’t be seen dead in the centre of town with tillers, shovels, and sickles as if they were, like, farmers or something. After studying the photo in more detail, I realise that the person on the far right is white, a male tourist as far as I can make out. Which is a reminder, if one were needed, that there was tourism in these parts before Eat Pray Love.
Monday, 19 November 2018, 4.47 pm by Bagus Ari Saputra
Ayu Gita Dewi dancing Legong Keraton style at the age of five in Ubud, Bali. Photograph: Bagus Ari Saputra/Gayatri
(The text below is a special look back to mark the birthday of Ayu Gita Dewi, the first child of I Ketut Bagia Astawa, the founder of Gayatri, and his Finnish wife, Oili Anita Ikonen.)
In the Gayatri family, three photos stand head and shoulders above all the rest in terms of their prominence in our minds, place in the family history, and sheer unforgettability.
The first is the one of Ayu, the first child, aged between zero and one, in a black and white apron with a delirious Mickey Mouse on it, hands hooked to the sides like a baby, partly for balance, partly about to grab something, mouth completely - and I mean completely - covered in blueberry jam. What we would say in our family is that already in that photo Ayu had presence.
The second is the one of Bagus, the second child, playing a Balinese drum in the children's play area of the old Gayatri restaurant, in a funky, purple matching trousers and shirt with turquoise stars and moons printed all over them. His hair is almost blasphemously blonde, the expression innocent and playful, and his eyes shining with happiness.
The third is this one. It shows Ayu again, on the steps of the old Gayatri restaurant, in full legong costume, smiling and seemingly about to show off her newly acquired dance movements. It was taken in 1994, when she was five years old, shortly before we moved to Finland.
The reason why these three photographs have achieved such legendary status is that we would see them every day on the first wall you faced when you walked into the kitchen of our old house in Finland. Now when I think back, I see a much deeper significance, as they were all taken in the compound in Ubud where we lived and our restaurant was, and provided a clear visual reminder that we have as part of our heritage a different culture too, one in which little girls dress in gold, purple, and red, wear crowns and dance using subtle but bewitching small gestures of the eyes, neck, and hands, and boys wear colourful natural prints and make music while sitting cross-legged on bamboo mats. We also always had Indonesian spices in our kitchen, like Lintang Suryo, the half Indonesian and half French protagonist of the novel Home by Leila S. Chudori, ranging from dried red chillies through anis seed to turmeric powder, and nasi goreng was a staple at our dinner table. For this, and the banana tree sculpture on the table near the stairs, the Buddha statue on the downstairs chest of drawers, the two wayang puppets on top of the television (no flat screen in those days!), and the two Balinese ink on paper paintings of female deities in our living room, a huge amount of credit goes to our mother, a Finnish woman who did her best to raise her children to be proud members of two cultures as opposed to being half-members of two. As bedtime stories she used to read us the Ramayana and the adventures of Lord Krishna, which are at least as entertaining, and full of violence, as those of the brothers Grimm.
Sometimes, as sport, Ayu and I argue over who is the more Balinese out of us two. I speak Indonesian (my father's mother tongue) more than her but she eats Indonesian food with more relish than me (and, what's more, eats it like an Indonesian, by which I mean with eyewatering amounts of chilli, using her hands, and quickly). I spend more time with Indonesians but she undeniably looks more local, with darker skin, my father's small but wide nose, and his height. If ever at this point we seem to be headed for a score draw, all she needs to do is say "Okay, how about this?" and pull her shoulders and elbows up and to the sides, arch her back, bend her knees, and start moving her wrists and fingers gracefully, majestically before I give up and say "Fine you win!" through a stomach-splitting fit of laughter, which she soon joins me in, as a result of this wholly unexpected, and bizarrely supremely convincing show of a traditional dance that as far as I know she has not practised for more than a quarter century.
When my big sister displays a very typically Indonesian trait, or something hugely reminiscent of my father, my mother likes to remark that "She was born in Bali, after all". I am not sure if I find the explanation as convincing, as it seems too fatalistic to believe that what we do in adulthood was already set at birth. However, when she was born, the first things she would have experienced would have been the kiss of warm, humid, air, bright colours everywhere from fruits through flowers to cloths, and the sweet smell of burning incense. When I was born in Finland, the view from the window would have shown a long dark night, the skeletal silhouette of a birch tree, and frosty snow, cold and gleaming in the harsh street light. No wonder I immediately fell ill with an infection and refused to leave, even if all this achieved was delay the inevitable by a week.
Another reason why this photo is special for us is that my father kept a laminated copy - his favourite way of preserving anything he deemed of value - with him from when it was taken all the way through to his passing in 2013. It shows his first child, the light of his life, with her father's confidence and bravado, eagerly performing to a crowd, proving that while her face was so exquisite she had to be an Indo, it in no way stopped her from excelling in the traditional arts so highly valued by Balinese society. My father would have looked on with immense pride and satisfaction. He wanted everything, and at that very moment, that is exactly what he had.
Wednesday, 14 November 2018, 4.15 pm by Bagus Ari Saputra
I Ketut Bagia Astawa and one of the old regular guests at Gayatri in the early 2000s. Photograph: Bagus Ari Saputra/Gayatri
Hosting is in our blood.
In 2002, when the founder of Gayatri, I Ketut Bagia Astawa, welcomed his son, who was studying abroad, back to Ubud, it did not take him long to get to his very Balinese conception of legacy. "This will all be yours one day," he said echoing Mufasa, "I made it all for you," though instead of pointing to savannahs, great rocks, and that epic tree with endless branches growing densely to the sides, he gestured towards some Balinese style bungalows, a lotus pond, and the rice fields beyond.
His twelve-year-old-son, still caught up in a Eurocentric mindset and feeling like he was in a slightly backward place where superstition reigned supreme and recycling was more likely to be used to refer to the reincarnation of souls as opposed to sustainable waste management, felt a bit put upon and found his father's effusiveness lacking in his heart. "When I retire, you will take over," he continued and then left a pause, waiting for the response that he wanted. The boy felt the pause grow, sit down, and then indicate that it did not intend to go any time soon, so he had to say something. "Look, Dad, this is lovely and all that, but I really can't see myself living here. For a a few weeks or months, sure. But permanently? What would I do?".
The father finished tying his sarong and made his way to the door. Without looking back, he shut the door, muttering "Stupid boy" on his way out.
Now in 2018, I, the stupid boy in question, found this old photo of my father in what appears to be the old Gayatri restaurant, and the conversation of all those years ago came back to me. I felt a bit like Michael Corleone, the son of Don Corleone in The Godfather, who seemingly does everything he can to avoid his father's fate, by choosing to have nothing to do with the family business, going away to study, planning a serious independent career, and dating a girl who is considered not one of us (American instead of Sicilian). But who ends up taking over after the Don dies? Michael. And when he does, he is more Don than the Don himself, as he has been living it since birth. He is a Corleone, it's in his blood.
The photograph shows my father with Flo, of Flo and Lau, a French couple that used to come to Bali and stay with us for several weeks, if not months, every year. They have left behind vivid memories of long conversations completely unhindered by their appalling state of English, as though communication were all about vigour and intention as opposed to mutual intelligibility, and a most French lack of inhibition when it came to sunbathing. True to their countrymen, they also exhibited a genuine interest and appreciation for local arts and traditions, which is why it is not a surprise that a picture survives of her in a lovely fuchsia kebaya. They have since gone on to build their own villa in the south of Bali, which is why they have not been seen much of late, but they of course had the good sense to supply me with their full home address and details in Brittany, if I ever felt inclined to visit, while helpfully passing on the information that their daughter is very beautiful and just happens to be exactly my age.
I love the photograph because it shows my father as what he was, the soul of Gayatri. Taking great pleasure in being with his guests. Proudly representing and communicating his culture. Displaying his personality with style. When I was young I was convinced that he was fluent in six or seven languages because he seemed to be able to welcome a person from almost anywhere, from Harajuku to Hamburg, and Helsinki to Le Havre, in their mother tongue. Most of all I love the passion that beams from his chest and the love that he had for what he did. It was never a job for him, it was a life, and one that he wanted his son to have after him.
Saturday, 10 November 2018, 11.55 am by Bagus Ari Saputra
The inspiring couple from Australia, Dale and Louise Jones, on their balcony in front of Room 3 - Aum. Photograph: Bagus Ari Saputra/Gayatri
On a sunny afternoon about a week ago, before the showers started in Ubud, I was walking along the side of the swimming pool, from south to north. There was a young couple in the room, one of whom was lounging in the shallow end, and an older gentleman doing what may have been laps (or a lap) in the main section. I was heading to the front office, with a determined step, as I had an important email to respond to. As I was making my way past, I overheard the older gentleman say "Well we have been together for forty years now...". I didn't know what the context was (whether he was saying it with pride or with resignation) but without thinking I halted my step, turned to face the man, stretched out my hand and said "Congratulations." He moved his hand toward mine, still wet and dripping, hesitantly, as if saying "For what?".
"Congratulations," I repeated. "You did say you and your wife have been married for forty years right?"
"Married for thirty-three. Together for forty," he interjected.
"Either way, it is absolutely worthy of celebration. What you have is a rarity in today's world. Loyalty, luck, love, whatever you want to call it, most people don't have what you have."
"We have our ups and downs," he said humbly.
"I am sure, as does everyone. But what I mean is that it is so rare for people in this day and age to take the time and effort to work through them. Most people appear to think that their unhappiness is caused by some external factor, whether it is work, where they live, or their partner, and that by changing one or more of those external things they will be happier. When in fact, the unhappiness is far more likely caused by something inside oneself, which one should address before trying to change others."
"Can I ask you something?" I continued, "What is your secret?" I thought I was doing the young couple in the pool a favour by asking but I was also genuinely curious.
"Tolerance," he replied with a quickness that surprised me, acoompanied by a wry smile.
There was a time when I would have found that reply depressing. When I was young, tolerance was one of those lukewarm virtues you associate with government initiatives and religion. Hardly something to set your heart alight. I wanted the secret to a beautiful romance to be kismet, that it was written in the stars, a force of nature that nothing or no one, whether family, class, language or national boundaries could stop, any more than they could stop an earthquake. That when you get together, both feel like they have been re-united with their original other halves, like the humans in the myth of Aristophanes. The secret? Listen to your heart, and don't be afraid to expose yourself, because it is only then that someone can get really close, and love you for who you are truly, as opposed to a mental construction of who you or they would like you to be. That is intimacy, that is two humans making a go at testing how close two humans can be.
That is what I would have liked to hear when I was younger, not tolerance. But now, when I heard his single word answer, it struck me as really profound. Despite its simplicity, it seemed to encapsulate a lot, it was a whole conversation in miniature. It was wise, compassionate, empathetic, experiential, generous, realistic all in one go, yet at the same time none of these things, or beyond them. It was at the same time so humble, yet also so great.