New cities are not easy

I've lived in DC now for about 4 months, but it may as well be four lifetimes. People say that moving around gets easier, and that once you learn how to travel, how to do a new city, it becomes like a powerful muscle that you can just exercise. Well, here I am, having lived away from my home country of Australia for five years now, and hopped around between England and Europe in between, telling you that's not true. Sure, I'm less of a mess regarding the whole apartment-finding, bill-paying, job-doing thing. Sure, I've picked up a few handy tips on how to meet people and find the place to be if you want to see life going by, and have some weird, weird adventures (which I want to blog about). But even those can't substitute for the time and patience it takes to find your feet in a new city. Knowing a place, really knowing a place takes an incredible mix of proactivity and patience, and forming long-term friendships with people probably takes the most. Sometimes, in DC, I'll think back to the first time I walked around all these pastel, row-houses and try to recapture that sense of enchantment, but it's been replaced by anxiety. What if I never feel comfortable here? What if I never make the most of it?

And so what? There is no deadline on when, and how you explore a city. You can go to museums every week, or talk to every stranger to see, or do none of those things and just people watch.  At the end of the day, moving alone to a city is you and yourself, and being fine with the things that happen, whatever they may be. Like finding something utterly delightful like a funny new bookstore, that you share with only yourself, and holding it to yourself like a ball of warmth. You get to know yourself, and maybe even like yourself. Hooray!

Last weekend, when I was feeling particularly out of touch, I lay in bed for a while, looking at the ceiling. Then, I got on my bike (a terribly, heavy, dusty thing) and rode to Rock Creek Park - one of the only urban National Parks in the country. As I flew down the entry road, the trees started rising around me, and then like someone had pulled a switch, I was away. The leaves had fallen, and the floor was this achingly mix of browns, reds, and golds. I breathed in, somewhat amazed, and the air was good and fresh. There was a maze of trails, and I followed one that disappeared into the woods, not quite sure where I was going, and then hugged the riverbank, until I found a rock and settled on it. I took in the reflection of the trees in the water, almost like the river had become a thing of gold, and in the distance, I saw a couple on another rock, leaning on each other. In this moment, I was happy that I was alone, happy that I was seeing a place in the world I had never seen before, happy that I had tried, after all, to start afresh. 

Finite days

I am going to leave Duke. I am going to leave this place, as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow over the newly opened plaza, and as surely as Penn Pavilion will serve mac and cheese. There is no escaping this hard fact. Sometimes, it is not even a fact I want to escape. There have been enough early morning walks to Perkins and awkward smiles across the plaza to weary the brightest person. And there is something tantalizing about the future, a new city brimming with the hopes of a thousand other young people, just like me. What I am resisting is the passage of time. In the beginning, I remember thinking that four years was an infinite stretch, that I would be in Durham forever. I met seniors who seemed clothed with a understanding of the world that I did not have, and I felt that it would be impossible to become them. Now, each day passes and I crawl into bed, sharply aware that there are a finite number of days left in this place. Has anything been so bittersweet?

I cannot stop the passing of time, so I let the days go by, and try to feel every moment as vividly as possible. I try to go back to the beginning of it all, but the girl I was feels so distant and young that I cannot grasp hold of her. In the fall of 2012, the era of gentrification had not quite encompassed Durham, and our FACs told us that it was dangerous to walk around at night. There were less restaurants and still less bars in this town that I had committed myself to for the next four years. I wore bright yellow jeans and a shirt with dots on it, and people introduced themselves at bus stops to me, and everything was alive and vibrant.  It is disconcerting to realize how little I knew about the world. I had thrown everything to the winds and come to Duke, brimming with the warm certainty that my ideas of the world were perfect. But I was to realize, with painful clarity, that I knew nothing. I knew nothing, when I first caught sight of the rising spires on Chapel Drive and let out a gasp, for what school would have such a grand and distinguished landmark? I knew nothing, when I joked in front of DSG that I was Asian and therefore knew how to take care of money, and was met with a stony silence. I knew nothing when I cried in a bathroom in Perkins, full of a young misery that stemmed from too many sleepless nights. I was to learn, about good friendship and bad friendship and the unconscious split that occurs when the people you love spread across the world and you may never see them again. I was to learn about oppression and fear and anger.  

But most of all I was to learn about how little I did know.

Sometimes, I want to go back to the nineteen year old girl in the yellow jeans and shake her. I’d say, oh boy, you have no idea, or be ready for the rest, or please stop wearing your hair like that. Or perhaps I’d say nothing at all. Would I have decided to come here, had I known how much was ahead of me? My pride wants to say yes, but I know better. I would have run in the other direction,

Somehow in four years, I have grown up, in a fumbling path full of mistakes and wrong turns that might have been avoided, but were not. Somehow, I have lived in places that I would have otherwise flicked through in travel magazines with unseeing eyes – Mumbai, London, New York. Somehow, I own three pairs of leggings – even if every thing else in wardrobe has turned to black and white. Somehow, I have laughed hard over grilled cheese in the Div School café. 

I have loved this place and I have hated it. How do you say goodbye to a place that has imprinted itself forever on your soul? You start with the small things. This chapel, sharp and outlined and the smooth face of the moon beside it, this table in VDH dedicated to George Grody. This bench in the Duke Gardens, where you can sit and watch the ducks float. This Korean food truck, and the smell of brewing coffee in Bella Union. And then you move on. This person, who started me on Game of Thrones. This person, who I laughed with as we drunkenly pushed tatter tots into our mouths. I am leaving, and I cannot stop it.

But how can I be gone, when I see the small shadows I have left behind? In the chip on the wall of my old dorm room, in the imprint of the steps leading from the BC to the Chapel, in the headphones I left in Wilson Gym, in the third duke card I lost and could never find again. Perhaps, a year later, some freshman will find it lying beside a bench in the Duke Gardens. They will, in their innocence, post it on in the All Duke group. I will not respond – because I am not here, not in person, not anymore.

 

Dark places

When I had been in London a month, someone invited me to a dance party. He was my housemate 's friend, and we met only the week before, when passing by to visit D. People were always passing by our grimy house, on their way to or back or around from some mysterious event. I was beginning to understand the way relationships were made here. It puzzled me, and I mulled it over in the moments when I was waiting for buses. I would go to a party in Greenwich, where I would meet a man who would recommend a cafe on Whitechapel Road, where I'd strike up a conversation with the barista and be invited to a get-together in Hackney where, in between two girls in tight printed pants, I would suddenly bump into the very first man from Greenwich. People would appear imy life in great spurts of hospitality and excitement, and then vanish into the cityscape, never to be seen again.  It was all very overwhelming and confusing. I finally settled on the words; open transience. I would murmur it sometimes under my breath, if I ever got too overwhelmed.  There was a tangible flow of personalities and events that seemed to be carrying me to somewhere - but where? 

On the day I met F, he was an hour away from his 22nd birthday. At first, I was impressed by his hair, shaved short on the sides and pulled into a knot on top. It was the kind of fuck-you statement that was so abhorred by the older generation, so trendy in the young. Yet he moved and spoke with an unaffected animation, waving his arms to emphasize a point. He was delighted that I had been listening Jamie xx's new album. It turned out he was a constant frequenter of the kind of dingy clubs where DJ's squinted over tables, and the music pulsed until the sun rose. It would a sin, as he put in a text, to not experience "London's brilliant underground scene!!!!" 

Because I had strangely trusted F almost immediately, I found myself sprinting for the last tube to Elephant and Castle one Saturday night. It was the hair, and the overuse of exclamations. What a clash. Someonewho used exclamations with such abandon had to be a good person. And I was afraid of being laughed at too. I, with my blandly tortured upbringing, the house with the garden of weeds and the dishes neatly piled on the side... I, who had watched teenagers at bus stops as if they were something so far away. I was fascinated by the entire concept of alternative. House, techno, UK garage... I spent time perusing soundcloud, creating playlists, going to concerts, all in an attempt to understand. I loved how it was a messy amalgram of fashion, music, art and emotion... all doused with a serving of nostalgia. It appealed to a part of me that was searching, the same part that had shivered in excitement when I arrived in the city, the same part that was so unhappy when I was at school.

South of London is not a comforting place past midnight, and Corsica Studios is located in perhaps the least comforting lane for a young woman. I picked my way across old posters for concerts were taped on corrugated sheet iron doors, in front of dumpsters brimming with rotting vegetables. But then I saw F,  who beckoned me over, to the line that was forming already in front of a discreet door. We were granted entry into a hallway with dirty white walls that could have been my own home, and then to a small room with red lights.  

Here, it was here, yes, finally. The darkness, the music, the air so thick with heat. People danced with their eyes closed, even in the dark, abandoned to the ceaseless push of bass. Watching them was like peering in the windows of someone else's living room.  Here, in the cocooned darkness, it was so simple. Oh, the relief! The relief to stop thinking, just for a while. To shut out the clamour of this confusing world with more clamour, to throw off the ceaseless need to define oneself as a person of character and originality - here, I was not watched. There were no expectations. I could be left alone to just be.  One of dancers must have felt my gaze, opened his eyes. He smiled lazily, nodded, and then slipped easily back into the rhythm.

F and I found a spot, right next to an elevated wooden stage where some others were dancing. It was nice to look up at them, to sense them moving somewhere above me, even if I couldn't see them. The music sounded so crisp, so clear. I began listening properly. The best thing about techno is that, in the repetitive 4/4 format, you begin to attune yourself to the delicate hooks and drops, the light cymbal or odd beat that deviates, and suddenly a single moment is lovely. In the dark, it's positively sensual. 

And so it went on for a few hours. Sometimes, when we got sweaty and tired, we'd weave through the hallways to a door with grids across the windows, much like the door of a prison. Beyond, it was fresh air, and the smell of cigarettes, and hoards of people sitting on little wooden benches. Corsica shared their outside terrace with the a boisterous Latino club. It was entertaining watching the two types of music-lovers collide, one so grunge, one so fiery. Next to me, an older man with brown, stringy hair was speaking urgently to a younger man, who was nodding slowly. There was another group, conversing in sharp French across from us. I marvelled at my sheer inability to understand - not a single word. It delighted me, to simply sit in this international stew. The cold air was soothing.

"I was always the weird one in school, " F said. "Weird music taste, weird personality."

"Do you ever get afraid," I asked, "of everything going wrong?"

 F looked down at his palms. "I'm always afraid. That's the problem."

The sky was lightening now. I didn't like that. We went back inside.

On the way home, I listened to another song off In Colour. It wasn't techno, but something softer, gentler, an anthem for late night rendezvous in the bedroom. "I go to loud places/to find someone to be quiet with..." Romy Madley Croft had never sounded sweeter. I thought about how dark places with loud music had been seductive for years. It must not have begun with the 80's, though it was during then this brand of culture exploded. It must have begun earlier, decades of people gathering in dark, underground places, rebelling against the suffocation of their lives, seeking some kind of release to sooth their souls. The thought made me a little sad. Didn't I already know why I couldn't let this go? 

 It was 7am, when I finally unlocked my front door, where I promptly fell into an almost dreamless sleep - almost, except for the faint sense that someone very dear to me was weeping over me. They never become corporeal. Only ever a sense. 

 

A beginning

I begin this space for writing while living in a room in East London, halfway between Mile End and Whitechapel. In places, the walls are cracked and peeling; sometimes when I am trying to drift off to sleep, pieces of plaster will rain down on the pillow. Because of this, sound carries particularly well and I can hear the silence between the beats of the song the boy next door is playing. I can also hear when the couple upstairs fight, and when they make up after, amorously. But the room is mine, every inch of it, and I have dressed up the window sill with a cactus plant that does not require me to actually nurture it, and I'm here on my own, in this sprawling city of 8 million people I don't know. But the solitude is good. The anonymity is good. There's space here to breath, and reflect and maybe remember what it's like to be stripped down to the bare bones of myself. No one expects anything of me. 

The situation is a grand old cliché, so much so, in fact, that it must be reality. When has ordinary life ever felt so close? I walk on the street and the smells are so sharp, the colours so bright and contrasted. There is a river of creative energy surging in this city, and I am hoping to sit close to it, embrace it, let it remind me of all the things I hope to do in this lifetime, and all the good that is in the world, still.