I had never expected to find myself Googling “how to tell if a sea snail is dead or just pretending”. But upon my return to Paris, this swiftly became one of my main preoccupations. My flatmate was in the States for a couple of months, and in her absence I assumed responsibility for the wellbeing of her freshwater snail, Joséphine. Once a week, I had to clean out her tank. This required me to put my hand into the water, remove Jojo, and put her in a jam jar for a couple of hours until the clean water reached room temperature, during which time I would occupy myself with a menial task or two.
(It’s important to note here that I have, from a very young age, been scared of snails. It’s the way they cower in their shells then jump out at you, eyes akimbo. If pushed, I’d rather a slug. At least they’re honest about it.) Once, I went about my business and forgot to remove Jojo from the jar. When I returned some hours later, there was no sign of life. A lone tentacle was limply drifting in the water. When I plopped her back into the tank, she sunk to the bottom and stayed there.
I checked on her regularly, the panic intensifying with each trip to the tank. The sixth or seventh time, I found her suckered up against the glass, mocking me silently with her stems. She pulled this trick fairly frequently over the next month or so, sending me into a shame spiral each time.
My temporary flatmate assured me Jojo was pretty hardy. “I wouldn’t worry,” she said cheerfully, after the first incident. “I once left her in the jar for three days and she was fine.” After the apocalypse, there will be all the world’s cockroaches, Will Smith, and Joséphine.
(Since the time of writing, Joséphine has departed this life. I mean her no disrespect.)
My fixation with Joséphine might suggest a loss of perspective. It’s been a year, and not always an easy one. Few of the resolutions I made when leaving Afghanistan have been realised. I do finish books now, though ‘The Goldfinch’ (three months and counting) may prove to be my undoing. I do not have the abs of Shakira. And I’ve come to accept that I never will, since the abs of Shakira are incompatible with a lifestyle as cheese-centred as mine.
I’d planned to pare things down and live more simply, transcendentalist-style. Pas possible à Paris. Immediately after my return I was more zen than I’d ever been. Arriving on the platform to find the métro pulling away, I genuinely didn’t care. I was even grateful for the extra reading time. But since I’ve started working again, I’ve succumbed to RATP Rage. I don’t think there is anything in the world that maddens me more than people who try to get on the métro before you’ve been able to get off it. Maybe those who refuse to believe that the carriage is full and fling themselves in anyway. IT’S A TRAIN, PEOPLE! NOT A TARDIS! It’s total anarchy. In Kabul, all I had to deal with was the occasional errant goat or bobble-bottomed sheep. They were much more open to persuasion and a lot less . . . shouty.
Though not without its joys, coming home has been difficult, difficult, lemon difficult. I think about Afghanistan a lot, probably more than is healthy. I also talk about it at pretty much every available opportunity, probably more than is bearable for those in earshot.
There is definitely a before and an after Afghanistan : but in the same way that there’s a before and an after Glasgow, and in the same way that, when the time comes, there’ll be a before and an after Paris. A lot of things changed, and in a very short space of time. It was by turns exhilarating, exhausting, embarrassing, disheartening, frustrating, breath-taking, illusion-shattering, inspiring, and vomit-inducing. Not perfect, but always fantastic.
I left for the airport just after dawn, before the house was awake. I hadn’t slept at all that night, and was pleasantly surprised that I’d managed not to cry, even at my farewell party where I was forced to (dance and) make a speech.
But as we left the house and trundled along the street – as full of holes as the socks I’d shamelessly left behind in the shared wardrobe (sorry, M) – we came upon one of the guards, who was coming in to start his shift. Let’s call him Jim. Legend has it that Jim used to be a gun-runner for the mujahideen. It’s probably not a legend. His face is as full of wrinkles and rivulets as the landscape you see from the plane when you fly into the city, and his eyes are startlingly clear. I’d always had something of a soft spot for him, and we regularly took part in a handshaking competition which he inevitably won, despite being as old as time itself. This particular morning, he put his hand through the window to shake mine. As he wrenched my arm from its socket, I felt the tears beginning to tremble, and as we drove away, out they came in great, shaking, snotty sobs.
All the way to the airport, the driver kept looking at me in a sort of “chin up, duck” way. I was operating under the assumption that we had some sort of gentlemen’s agreement that transcended the, um, cultural and linguistic divide, according to which the incident would never be spoken of. I found out later that he’d told the story to pretty much anyone who had got in his car in the days that followed, miming my eye- / nose-wiping and whispering theatrically, “Miss Rachel . . . BIG problem”.
I miss the people, of course. Most of the expats I was friendly with came back around the same time I did. With some we talk only of Kabul, but with most we’ve found common ground elsewhere. People soon started leaving again : for South Sudan and Syria, the CAR and the DRC. Faced with the trials, tribulations and total ridiculousness of everyday life here I do sometimes find myself wishing I was back there, where I really only had to concentrate on doing my job well, and not being insufferable of an evening. Of course, there was a lot more to it than that. But on a purely practical level, a lot of things were easier : I never had that feeling that I’ve failed as a human being because I’ve forgotten to buy bin bags, or filled in the wrong form, or neglected to pay the gas bill, for instance. I recently went to work with only one eye made-up and spent the day winking lasciviously at people in the hopes that they wouldn’t notice.
Work-wise, I’ve been more than lucky. Unexpectedly, I got a job in the communications department at HQ. It has its own challenges, and is as frustrating as it is fulfilling. I find myself doing baffling things like ordering cholera-shaped cuddly toys off the internet, and trying to work out how one might construct a three metre-tall pen with a week’s notice. I hope I’ll have the chance to do a bit more field work in the next couple of years. But for the moment, the best way I can contribute to the cause – for want of a better way of putting it – is to do my job here at HQ well.
I’ve been reading bits and pieces of a book written by a Pakistani author, Ahmed Rashid. The UK edition is entitled Taliban : ‘Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia’. Interestingly, it was published in the US as ‘Taliban : Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia’. Which is . . . well, not the same. I’m also working my way through Jason Elliot’s ‘An Unexpected Light’, which is the best book about Afghanistan I’ve read to date, in terms of its accessibility, and the accuracy with which he captures certain aspects of the country. My experience of it is, of course, much more limited than his. I have never, for example, elbowed in on a mujahideen mission to ransack an orchard, or indeed a Soviet outpost, in the dead of night. More’s the pity.
Says Elliot : “It is strange what thoughts come to you when you are riding alone in silence through such a wilderness ; I have forgotten them all now, but I remember feeling certain that life would never be quite the same.” In nearly ten months, I never found myself riding alone. I was very rarely alone at all. But I certainly had a lot of thoughts. Thank you for bearing with them.