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Being top-heavy with pensioners, the expat world here seems forever trapped on a roundabout of illness and death

Most of the time we stumble through the days wasting precious time on petty woes and worries.

I certainly do. Occasionally the beauty of the world and the creatures within it penetrates our self-absorption and we stop for a time, almost surprised by the rightness of it all. For too short a moment we give thanks for all we have, and those we have, before reverting to our default mode of mild dissatisfaction.

That's why I suppose we make much of Hogmanay, or Reveillon as it's known here. If the year has been bad or troubled we can dance it away before awakening to the potential of a year untrammelled, a year where all is possible and rather wonderful in its freshness and hope. If the year has been kind, and we and our friends and family have survived unscathed, we can joyfully say goodbye to it and tentatively hope our luck will hold for the next.

Reveillon is the night where we can legitimately turn inward and reflect on all that was or wasn't and in the examination put all the experiences into mental boxes of regret or pleasures, to be discarded or returned in memories.

Last year at this time I couldn't wait for the year to leave as I unsteadily walked into the next on legs still uncertain following the breaks. Something changed profoundly inside me that year, leaving me for the first time with the horrible truth of my own mortality and the sense of time whizzing by.

For a time, looking to the future brought only abstract fears and the awareness of more time behind than ahead. But a new peace and decisiveness settled over me as, after spending Christmas in London, I confirmed I am a city cat, not a country mouse, and vowed to put Las Molieres on the already over-supplied market.

Around me friends and neighbours all seemed content in their place and life; it was only I, apparently, who quibbled, questioned, niggled and narked.

Twelve months on I realise yet again how little we know of what goes on around us. There has been divorce, death, love refound, security lost, homes dispersed – none of which I foresaw or anticipated in what I saw as my untroubled neighbours' houses.

So many lives have warped under a carapace of normality, the smiles fixed for the outside, the inside turmoil papered over for social necessity.

Being top-heavy with pensioners, the expat world here seems forever trapped on a roundabout of illness and death. One recovers, another goes in. Rarely do you hear of life beginning, only ending.

Friendships are more fixed in age-groups so life can often seem relentlessly downbeat on a one-way ticket with no youthful triumphs to celebrate. Our world is unbalanced that way.

Which is why, I suppose, we often behave like adolescent ingrates, guzzling our wine and staying in bed half the day, reverting unconsciously to a time when days seemed too long and we wished the years away.

Fortunately I still share, vicariously, the hopes and earnest fears of younger former colleagues – the new job in New York, the new husband in London, the new baby in Paris. And in my solitude I can celebrate with them, though often with the pangs of knowledge that such things are no longer possible for me.

And simply by the mere fact of having lived longer and having seen more, I can reassure and promise better times when all seems bleak.

That is the wonderful thing about we humans. No matter if time and experience have taught us better, we still look to the new year with eyes wide and sparkling with the excitement of all to come – while carefully crossing our fingers behind our backs.

We believe in the promises we make to ourselves – in my case smoke less, drink less, eat more, move more – even though they are most likely doomed to failure.

We believe each Hogmanay we've been given a second chance to start afresh and change our ways; change our views, moderate our opinions and perhaps discover the serenity of tolerance and acceptance.

Just before Christmas this year I reluctantly left my warm house to sit in a medieval church to listen to Robert sing in a choral concert. For the first time I noticed his fragility; the shiny double-breasted suit still bearing the outline of his once larger frame; the frayed shirt collar exposing his shrunken neck; the lack of dexterity as he fumbled with his song sheets.

At 85 one should expect that, but all this year, as he turned up bearing fruit and vegetables picked by him and his wife, the fragility was masked by his enthusiasm.

He'd talk of restaurants, of chateaux visited, of history uncovered, of trips planned over the next years. Never of sickness, of ennui, of disappointments or travails. For Robert, life itself is thrilling and he faces each day with relish, whatever it may bring.

It was only when allowed to examine him from my unforgiving pew that I saw the cloak his inner exuberance swathed around his old man's body.

This Hogmanay I'll add a new resolution to the familiar litany – to see life through Robert's eyes. Bonne Annee.

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