• Thammika Songkaeo

Making Switzerland like Home

I learned today that our trip in May, for which we've been preparing with "And The Ferry Sank!" was not supposed to happen—the school holidays that I thought existed did not really exist, and for my misunderstanding a school staff tried to blame me this afternoon. She said I should have gone to the school website, then hit tab after tab until I arrived at the school calendar, not Googled my daughter's school name plus the word "calendar." This would have made sense maybe twenty years ago.

I told her it's the age of Google—people search via keywords on Google, and what they get on Google, especially when it's still hosted on the school's website, will be taken as reliable. A person does not think that she's supposed to go to homepages, then peruse the tabs, then click and click and click, marathoning on a trail of links from the homepage, because that's probably the right thing to do. The whole point of learning how to input keywords as a research skill was circumventing that.

After school today, I had to ask the principal for approval for my daughter's leave because those holidays didn't truly exist. He, a man I'd never spoken to, signed within seconds. Strangers have been known to mess up my life, then make it more bearable, steering me through hallucinatory matrixes of altruism spaced only nanoseconds away from moronic muses, who make me get up and write, wondering, Just how do you let an outdated school calendar live as the top result on Google? (What am I even supposed to think about whether you're actually good or bad at SEO?)

And what kind of amazing opportunity you might have yielded me. Ticket prices would probably have been more expensive if there really were a school holiday. At the airport, too, I'd probably meet a few families opting for Australia, questioning my decision to fly "all the way" to Europe for just a week, and then I'd have to grunt as gently as I could, then say, "Because I want to." "But a week's so short!" they would say, and I would wish that their flight had already left. Now, I will meet no one at the airport because everyone else will be in town. Sending their kids to school.

Today's travel preparation did not involve mock-ups of drowning, but it did consume trees—printed itineraries, photocopied marriage certificates, birth certificates, and more, more ways of me seeing me by seeing who I am on paper, sometimes through my relationship with others—accumulating into two stacks of persuasion to strangers—gate-keeping, consular Europeans—that my daughter and I will not stay beyond our legal welcome, for we have enough of a life where we come from: we cherish it, wish to return to it, have the practical means to generate that desire, and will certainly regret walking away from home permanently.

It's constantly disturbed me that the sense of possibility and pride in one's home life needs to be brought up only unilaterally in many international relationships. And yet, as I grow, it's becoming clear to me that each of my own visa application cover letters also feels like an updated diary, that as much as I abhor what the process might stand for, I get to do check-ins with myself because of them, these obscene, little mini LinkedIns: here's what I'm doing, here's where I am, here's why my next goal is to be there.

Tourist or a mix of tourist-and-business visa applications have always felt like a pageant: you show yourself off through what you and your household are worth, you write cover letters peppered with salient self-precision, flaunting your ability to holiday or to be important enough in your organization to become the live mouthpiece irreplaceable even by a headset, more staticky version of your own voice. You deserve to take up space and air, and you demand it. I've never written a cover letter that suggested anyone's life would remain the same if I did not travel, although that is probably the truth—which is what made me a non-tourist for the first twenty-two years of my life.

I didn't see how I could be me as a tourist and add value to anything. The latter seemed destined for behavior motifs, which I was certain people the world over were already supplying—lugging cameras around their neck, or a visibly insular sense of in-group while what they saw of a foreign country was consumed through barriers of language, time, and generally over-excited feelings. To know a place, as I had come to think of it by the time I was eight or so, having lived in India for five years, was to understand the relationship of your own lassitude with it. Getting to know a place wasn't so much from feeling tired having explored it all day, as much as being with it a little everyday, so much that your range of emotions—even a tiny, unnameable grain whose lifetime is one quick, hot breath—becomes a part of its quivering, living molecules; so, too, the range of emotions of those who call it their native home enter your senses by way of quiet understanding, a shared well of those who make the commitment of time, winding up exposing multiple sides of themselves to it—not just the tourist's thrill, but also the more languid beating of daily life, even boredom, are involved in the atmosphere-making and structure of a community. Time pulls out the best and the worst in all of us, and until a place has seen sides closer to my worst, I'm not sure I can say I know it.

When I was young(er), I didn't know what it meant to be abroad and travel. As a diplomat's child, I only knew what it meant to be abroad and hunker down. Which might be why I've enjoyed my more than two years not at all leaving Singapore, from late 2019 to now. I wouldn't have this May trip plan had I not had a cancer scare on Thursday morning, before my daughter asked me, with her round, dewy eyes, whether I could take her to Switzerland, and I thought that I'd make some memories with her in case I soon would not exist. We won't be in Europe long enough to hunker down, but perhaps we could pretend because what's important for hunkering down, first and foremost, is intention, meaning, certainly, the commitment to be there, even if there are no holidays.

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