peonies – welcome back

happiness, not in another place but in this place… not for another hour, but this hour.

Walt Whitman

Six days before I left Melbourne, I bought a bunch of peony roses on Sydney Road; five stems tightly budded and pale-pink. I fussed with them; stripping their leaves, chopping the stems to shorter and shorter lengths, arranging first in a squat ceramic vase, then a tall glass vase, then an old milk bottle as the frilled petals unfurled. They sat on our coffee table where the sun comes through the sliding door, and on the day I left I asked my housemate to discard them when they wilted.

Six weeks before I left Timor-Leste in April 2019, I enrolled in Indonesian language classes, Laura and I on Thursday afternoons in crunchy dialogue with guru Jose. Rote learning colours, pronouncing the alphabet, nama saya Sophie and anda nama siapa, like we were children.

Dili has several excellent language schools and thousands of citizens who speak fluent Bahasa Indonesia – people who grew up and were educated under Indonesian occupation in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Half of Timor-Leste’s population is aged under 30 – people my age spent their childhoods watching Indonesian television and attending school classes run entirely in the language, which continue to supplement Tetun vocabulary when there’s no good home-grown word for office or ice cream or suitcase. Dili is as good a place as any to learn Indonesian, but barely a month before I left the city didn’t feel like sensible timing to start.

I had no immediate plans to spend much time in Indonesia, the classes were expensive, and the sense of inadequacy and inferiority I felt while stumbling through basic vocabulary only exacerbated the anxiety I felt as I prepared to leave Timor-Leste. It was ultimately, and of course, the best and only time to start.

With a departure date in mind you might fold up every moment between today and then like a paper accordion crumpling itself together; one thin flat piece of time consumed by its end.

I am a then what person who’s never in the moment; I could have spent six weeks thinking only of the departure date and not of every other day before then. I could have six days ago told myself there’s no point buying peonies because I’ll leave before they die. But of course it’s better to have six days of enjoying flowers than it is to not have them at all; of course it’s right to find the things that ground your feet in place to stop you drifting away too soon. I left Timor-Leste in April 2019 with barely-there infant Indonesian. Those classes were – measured by my language proficiency – a colossal and clear-cut waste of money. Twenty dollars on five fat roses also wasn’t very smart spending. But it’s what kept me in place and prevented my leaving before departure date. And I will never see the peonies wilt and fall.

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