Thursday, June 20, 2013

When Soilitude was an Alien Concept


In India, solitude is an alien concept. A subcontinent bursting at its seams with over 1 billion lives, it is tough to escape the busy chattering, impatient honking, loud celebrations and fumes of sweaty bodies. Our cities are constantly expanding and mutating to accommodate the influx of eager souls with dreams to make it big. It’s common to see families huddled under flyovers, silently watching revelry of the young and the impetuous, drunk on life. Enterprise flourishes in all shapes and forms, in every nook and corner – from children peddling magazines to the memsahib in her chauffeured car, to the hawker stands that feed the hungry and the tired, to the glitzy shopping malls where the trendy head for a good time.

Even if you are living alone, with your family pining for you in a far off city, your newspaper-wala, milkman, home delivery guy, cleaning lady will make sure your bell is always ringing, their smiles, and inane talks filling the silence of your one bedroom apartment in a high rise.

In India, the concept of loving and caring is sharing your moments of sadness and elation with your hundred odd relatives and friends. A wedding ceremony is less about the couple about to begin a new life and more about guests who are out to have a good time. A battalion of Tais, Buas and chachera bhais, who appear in droves only during celebrations and mourning…

You can be lonely but never alone. 




It’s only when you move out of your country, you experience solitude, until unless you were one of those who went to the mountains or hid in forests to seek the true meaning of life. As you step into the First World splendour with your Third World aspirations, the first thing you notice is the complete absence of noise.

When I travelled to Chicago some years back with my daughter to spend our summer break with my husband, I remember gasping at the picture perfect beauty of its suburbs. So pristine and beautiful that you could stand near the French windows for hours gazing and then wondering – why are there no people on the roads? Rows and rows of identical houses overlooking pretty gardens on tree lined avenues but not a single soul to behold!

Back in Delhi, all I had to do was step on my balcony to be engulfed by sights and sounds of life in its myriad emotions – the vegetable vendor surrounded by a bunch of women haggling in all their earnestness, the neighbourhood kids running around aimlessly, the chaat-wala announcing his arrival in a sing song tone, the local Romeo following the pretty young thing with his eyes; it was as if a blockbuster with the perfect blend of melodrama, action and romance was constantly playing outside your door.

Now in Brisbane, as I sit on my living room couch, occasionally looking up from my scribbling to stare at the river that shimmers and froths at its sandy banks, sailboats anchored in the middle of the river, bobbing up and down, the cars on the imposing Story Bridge moving noiselessly, all I can hear is the hum of the refrigerator and the sound of my breathing. No noisy neighbours, no loud clank of utensils being washed, no smiling face outside my door waiting to deliver veggies I had ordered on the phone….

Only this time, I have become comfortable with the silence that surrounds me. I do not look at the old lady with purple hair and a bent back walking on the streets alone, with pity in my eyes. Nor the elaborately made up Marilyn Monroe, sipping coffee at Starbucks, staring at nothing, a smile playing on her lips. You know they are alone, with no family to go back to, yet they don’t seem sad. In India, most of us tend to look at the lone man at the theatre or the girl sitting alone at the café with sympathy, wondering - in this city of 17 million, how is it possible the she has no one to talk to? Rarely stopping to think that it could be out of choice and not compulsion!

When we move to a new country, we leave behind everything that was near and dear to us and carry only their memories. Home is no longer a place but a state of mind. What we took for granted becomes a luxury. But like our great cities, we expand and transform, learn and unlearn to adapt to new accents, customs and cuisines. Away from friends and family, we face terrible periods of loneliness. But it also makes us eager to make new friends who become our family to share our little joys with.

This is the first lesson we learn – getting used to change which becomes the only constant in our lives. Because we know the sooner we get used it, the happier we will be.


77 comments:

  1. Ah! This post reminded me of the time I spent in York... and the walks by the river Ouse. There were times we felt we were the only ones in the city... and then we'd suddenly see some 6 ft tall Englishman walking his his 6 inch high dog and they'd uncannily have similar features. That was when I came up with my theory about owners of dogs who start resembling their pet dog! I mean, you can hardly find a guy with a Roman nose having a pug on the end of his leash... he is more likely to be encouraging a dachshund as a pet.

    What I'm really trying to say is that I loved the post... yes, even solitude has a different meaning here in India. Just as they'd never understand how we define poverty.

    Arvind Passey
    www.passey.info

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    1. I wish the owners would love up to the image their dogs have of them :-)

      And when I tell some of the women here, how liberating it is to be able to do what I want to without any restrictions, they give me a blank look.

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  2. I had got used to the silence and solitude in Japan and miss it so much now ! In India someone eating/shopping/watching a movie alone is pitied but in other countries its acceptable ! Loneliness is terrible when you are alone in a new country, but like you say it makes you more keen to make new friends and gather more experience.

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    1. In India we have scant respect for each others personal space.

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  3. So true, Purba. We all need solitude and somehow we're never left alone to enjoy it in India, unless we do something drastic, like going for a Vipassana course. Do you think, perhaps, we all need to get more comfortable with ourselves?

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    1. My theory is we are scared of our own thoughts. That's why we fill our days with unnecessary chores and people.

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    2. You could be so right. And now mobile phones and the internet are the perfect 'fillers'. :)

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  4. I'm comfortable on my own because I think that being forced to socialise with people I don't necessarily gel with is worse than not having anyone around. At worst I can spam my daughter on facebook :D

    When I came to Bombay my mother had given me a scroll of phone numbers thinking I'd be lonely. I think I might have called them a few times but I was too lazy to keep it up.

    Actually it was quite liberating. No one cared if I made the beds or cooked or did anything all

    :)

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    1. Being alone is a new experience for me. Initially it scared me but now I am warming up to it.

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  5. Home is no longer a place but a state of mind, sums it up beautifully. You are in a different world and it is natural to miss home and compare cultures. It is a great opportunity to sit back, enjoy nature and reflect. Once you are back, it will be back to chaos, cacophony and chacha chachis.

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    1. I have realized that I need to declutter my life in Gurgaon. But I'm still not sure how I'll do it ;-)

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  6. I used to sit on my bed and look at the ceiling and cry...Why me? - When I came to Oman...I stayed in that state of mind for more than a year...It was difficult to live without anyone around to chit chat. Now, three years down the line, I may have adjusted to this, but I am definitely not loving this solitude, but trying to make the best out of it. I know exactly what you said in the post. I had the exact wonderment about how can there be no people on the roads..!

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    1. It does make you uncomfortable. doesn't it! We have six apartments on our floor and I've yet to meet any of our neighbours.

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    2. Haa same here...and I have no friends here whom I call call when I'm bored. It has become extremely difficult to find like minded people.

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  7. I understood the meaning of living in loneliness and quiet on my first visit to Long Island in NY as a bachelor! It was difficult to find people on road and even in supermarkets. It has not changed much when it comes to rest of the world barring few countries like ours! So enjoy the melody of silence and new found peace, Purba:)

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    1. Ahha...I loved the term "melody of silence".

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  8. Long periods of solitude .... they truly force a person to become comfortable with ones own self. That is what I learnt. I love the depth of your post

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    1. Solitude is an inevitable phase of our life. We cannot be with our loved ones forever.

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  9. :) You can be alone and/or lonely in India too. Just travel alone.
    Even in Delhi I have been alone many times. It is not hard and no one has ever given me those sympathy glances.

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    1. You are unique and so are your experiences.

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  10. I remember that during my initial stay in Manchester I was terrified that I was living in Zombieland. I even tried to peek into moving cars to see if someone was actually driving them.
    How I miss that loneliness.

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    1. How easily we adapt to the unfamiliar!

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  11. wonderful post... I have grown up in south Delhi (govt. officers quarters) where no one is bothered about the other person..one may choose to make friends with neighbors or not.....having grown up and lived all my life in such environment ..it was personal and emotional shock to me when i moved to east delhi after marriage..the noise, the chatter, the nosy(but sometimes well meaning ) neighbors...it was a strain to me and was such a road block to the adjustments & understanding we were trying to make in newly formed partnership!!!

    thankfully, the husband had the option of a govt quarter in south delhi and we moved.....my husband jokes and tells everyone..that south delhi actually saved our marriage :)

    so, so i love solitude..yes!! I do..I cherish my new found solitude and treasure and celebrate it like no other :)

    http://www.myunfinishedlife.com

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    1. Hahahaaha..In India, people often mistake intrusiveness for sharing and caring. It gets annoying at times but I remember when my husband was hospitalized, it was my nosy neighbours who rallied around me.

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  12. Your post strikes a chord, Purba! I crave silences. I get tired of conversations. And in a way, I loved it when I came to Mumbai from Lucknow. Everyone was so non intrusive. You wouldn't know your neighbour if you didn't want to. As a species, we love to talk loudly, play music loudly, laugh loudly hardly paying a thought to your neighbor. And being alone and lonely are two such different things that people often mistake. Of course, places like US and Australia have the luxury of lesser populations. Our towns and cities are teeming with people so it is highly unlikely that one would really find solitude easily. A pensive post again from you.

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    1. Strange thing is, I used to avoid having phone conversations when I was in Delhi. But out here, I like talking to my friends.

      Yes, loneliness is a state of mind and alone is a state of being :-)

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  13. You have perfectly captured all contrasts and emotions in this post. I am someone who grew up amongst a big family only to move to UAE post marriage. I have dealt with loneliness and sometimes still deal with it. I love it how you said - Home becomes a state of mind.

    Kudos to you!

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    1. Yet we never stop looking for moments of happiness.

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  14. I remember my shock when we first stepped onto the streets of a suburb in the US. Just cars, cars, and nothing more! I thought I'd be able to ask the people on the street for directions (as we do in India), but there was no one!

    The upside of all that is people can afford to be polite to each other and smile and strangers they meet because there aren't thousands of them. When you're surrounded by people all the time, you get annoyed easily and don't engage with anyone. It's like that New York which is pretty crowded too.

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    1. I carry notes detailing bus routes and timetables every time I am travelling to a new place. Living abroad makes you pretty self-sufficient.

      That's precisely why I love New York - it's so full of life!

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  15. Yap,I have spent time overseas.
    Honestly,I may not like the noise etc,but,I missed it.

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    1. Yes, it becomes a part of our existence.

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  16. So beautifully put!! "Home is no longer a place but a state of mind"!! Loved the post!!

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  17. While I was in India I was surrounded by many people but was feeling very lonely.
    Here in a country where population is declining, I am surrounded with very less people yet I no longer feel lonely. I feel at peace here. Europeans go to India to find peace, but I found peace here and I am from India- the land of meditation and peace and tranquility.
    As you said it is state of mind also I think it depends on the person/people you are with.

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    1. As someone so rightly said, India preaches peace to the world, yet the nation is so violent! The chaos, the traffic, so many people can get intimidating for newbies.

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  18. Well well, i realized that i was alone for a day in singapore. Well , u feel alone in the night too in india. We hear horns, whistles, hubby wifey screams, neighborhood partying... But still, we will miss india in some or the other way

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    1. Exactly! Even at night you have the sounds of the distant traffic, the whistle of the night watchman, the barking of the dogs to give you company.

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  19. I can so relate to your post. Right now, I am writing this comment sitting in the study room of my sister's home in one of the suburbs of Chicago :)Having lived in the SFO part of California, which is full of hustle bustle...I moved to a small town Folsom..I was alone. At times lonely...I enjoyed every bit of it..I enjoyed my books sipping red wine, watching the sunset from my bedroom window. I had no one to interfere..By the time I got accustomed to it, now is the time for a change and move again..waiting to see what wonders the new place has in store.

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    1. Ahha, now I know the secret behind the name - Found in Folsom.

      Every new move is a challenge and it doesn't take too long to overcome them.

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    2. :-) It is a very beautiful town/city. Has everything in it..everything within 5 miles..shops, malls, walking/biking trails..It has lakes, hills all one could ask for :) Nothing can beat the sight of pinkish/orangish/reddish/purplish summer skies of Folsom...OMG..I am writing a love letter on Folsom ...LOL

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  20. Aare in delhi wala para u forgot to mention the lovely pigeons :D :D ... I could totally relate with what you said about people being by themselves can be by choice and not compulsion... I have gone to umpteen movies and good restaurants all by myself and have had people stare at me like I just landed from Jupiter O_O...

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    1. I can't stand huge motley crowds and kitty parties scare me :/

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  21. I live in India, and I have no problems having "solitude" all the time. Even when my kids were growing up, i had time for myself with no interference from anybody or anything, and I have never craved for too much company. I often reflect on this aspect of my life and feel very grateful for the solitude bestowed upon me: I feel blessed. I am not craving for the mountains, yet I do love this solitude in the midst of all the chaos around us. even in a crowded area I can just shut off and enjoy being alone. (I don't need music also to do so).
    Being the youngest in my family, with my brother and sisters all married and away I had enjoyed Solitude then also, and nothing seem to have changed, except for the inevitable changes that life brings on us. I am sure,I would get the same solitude wherever I live.
    In fact, i cannot understand people who live abroad, after living in India,(like my sister and cousins) look forward to having so much company, for me living in Chicago, and looking out of the window to see absolutely no one would be most ideal.

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    1. Now that I have experienced solitude in its fully glory, maybe I'll try to seek it in the chaos, once I come back.

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  22. Agree with Rachna that in an overpopulated country like ours, it would be virtually impossible to find physical solitude away from crowds but mental solitude is always possible if we maintain a core of calmness and quiet within. In fact, the best solitude for me would be in a crowd, when I feel alone and yet surrounded by people :) It gives me the opportunity to connect with myself. I know it might be considered infra dig, but I like sounds around me too! Too much silence is not my cup of tea.

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    1. It emanates from inner calmness. A state of mind so silent that you can hear your heart talk. Perhaps I'll try to achieve it once I come back.

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  23. Very nice post Purba. Only few days back, I was thinking about this very concept that why we think that the people who are venturing alone need to be pitied.

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    1. It is an individual choice that we need to respect.

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  24. Nice post. Love all ur posts. I agree with points as I was in vizag, mumbai , delhi and now singapore.

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  25. I think solitude is not attributable to the physical absence of people in the tree lined suburbs of the First World. Even in the extreme bustle of New York City, I have felt this calm and quiet of being alone and happy that I have never felt anywhere else. I have always ascribed it to the concept of respect for personal space. You could be packed like sardines in the subway, and yet, no one would be touching you or staring at you. They would just leave you alone!
    Loved this. I am glad you are having a good time in Brissie!

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    1. Sorry, first line should have read - "...not just attributable..."

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    2. It's such a relief not to see his phone constantly buzzing after office hours. Holidays are considered sacrosanct. No nosy neighbours and jostling pedestrians to deal with. But it's thanks to the same seclusion, your neighbour can have six girls chained in the basement and still get away with it.

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  26. I might look for some silence when I am in India..But when I am in singapore I crave for some noise. I guess it's the Grass is greener on the other side concept.

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    1. Yes, we end up missing the things we found annoying at home.

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  27. Good one... Just fell in love with one...I experienced the same solitude while staying in OMAN.. I guess we all go through this phase at some point in our life..

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    1. As a young mother I used to crave solitude :-)

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  28. I like being alone sometimes, but lonely is not my idea of living. Have lived all my life in Mumbai and have been blessed with a non-intrusive life, till now; "blessed" I say cause that's how I like it. However, a month long stay at Bangalore, made me realize that I am a people person as I longed to talk with someone or just be in a crowd, whenever, my solitude spanned more than 2 hours. I either called up mom or a friend or just visited a mall to strike a conversation with a sales person. But, I love "time for myself", which I always manage to gather, as I said.. blessed!

    Loved your post Purba, like always. :)

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    1. Weekends make me crave for the hustle and bustle of the city. Otherwise I don't quite mind the silence.

      Thanks much :-)

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  29. Some times , it is a relief to be out of the madding crowd and have some solitude. But sometimes , the loneliness gets to you too. Here for the first time. Loved it.

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    1. We have phases when we want to be left alone and then we have phases when we cant get enough of our family and friends.

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  30. Very aptly said about solitude. As you said, being abroad some of them experience the true meaning of solitude. The noise pollution is totally filtered and there's great relaxation for the mind. One can become lonely in a crowd but finding solitude in a crowd is unimaginable.

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    1. At least I haven't reached the stage where I can blank out the noises that surround me.

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  31. I was drawn tot his post because I was sitting with mum in law (who has come visiting me) and she tells me that she hates apartments. She doesn't like living in a pigeon hole (exact words). I only laughed didnt get offended and then I gave her the example of so many of my friends settled abroad and how they all feel lonely and take some time to settle into this concept :-)

    Richa

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    1. The sooner we adapt to the changes in our lives the better it is for us.

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  32. I enjoy solitude in my home,but when i go out on the roads the mad rush of traffic sort of pushes me back home.But one has to venture out sometimes & i realize that others too,have targets to achieve.Basically it is the curse of over population.But i appreciate small talk from those i come across.

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    1. Mindless chit-chatter help us to unwind. Even I don't mind it occasionally.

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  33. Somethings are a wrench and somethings, a blessing when we move. In NZ I have two neighbours who always have friendly smiles and a word of greeting. We are all aware that we don't want to intrude but enjoy being friendly. I've also learnt to accept that some will avert their eyes on spotting their neighbours.

    As for solitude I enjoy it as long as I have something to read and the computer :)

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    1. Yep! that's how I sail through my "alone" phases - books, computers and movies.

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  34. Loved the line you can be alone but not lonely. Reminds me of my fav author Jhumpa Lahiri who writes on the same concept.

    Superb post Purba. I don't blog much these days, but wenever I do, ur blog posts surely draw my attention.

    http://Shilp3005.blog.com

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    1. Would love to visit your blog. Thanks for sharing.

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  35. So wonderfully put! You described my first few years in the US to the T! "Home is no longer a place but a state of mind"...so very true!!

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    1. And now sunny Cali is your home and Kol is where you spent your growing years :-)

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  36. I should definitely follow your blog..
    I followed it ! :D

    It is indeed a circus going on in india and if I had gone to a more peaceful location, believe me i wouldn't even want to remember the exuberant noises coming out of the neighbourhood!

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    1. You don't know what you'll miss until you've moved to a new place.

      Thanks for the follow :-)

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