Archive for the 'Moving' Category

Jogging Where Tanks Once Rolled

Aerobic dancing at Olympic Stadium

3pm, barefoot in the dim room, whirling fans and headphones on, staring at the screen. It’s my first trip back to the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, where I spent hours last spring, trolling through their archives of documentaries and newsreels and scanned photographs of the old Phnom Penh, before the war—which, it seems to me today, doesn’t look so different from the Phnom Penh outside the open-air terrace, just minus the new cars and sidewalks. Sometimes.

I’m back to refresh myself. I’m working on editing my second Glimpse piece. I wrote it over the summer and haven’t looked at it in months, so when I got Sarah’s comments, it all felt vague and faraway. I knew I needed something to kickstart me.

To be honest, I haven’t been thinking much about my project, or the Khmer Rouge, or any of it. Last time I’d arrived, it’d been on my mind constantly, a lens I saw everything through: everyone over 35 was a survivor. I couldn’t turn it off, and I’d hit the ground running, dove right in to the research and writing, the quest to understand.

And it’s not like I’ve forgotten all that—I can feel it, sitting there, off to the side and waiting, in the corner of the room when I can’t sleep at night—but my focus has been elsewhere. Getting an apartment. Buying all the crap I need—dishes and towels and non-neon-plastic chairs and Western bedsheets (really effing hard to find, btw). Reconnecting with the friends I’ve got left, and making new ones. Getting a phone and internet and finding a good laundry place and all that very unglamorous day-to-day stuff that’s part of life, part of living somewhere.

So I’ve pushed it all aside, knowing that it was waiting and that I’d come to it when I was ready (and, really, I’ve only been back two weeks). So it was with a little hesitation that I went to Bophana, took off my shoes and climbed the steps, climbed back in to The Reason I Came, and the thick-as-mud emotional difficulty of it all.

Most of the newsreels are in French, and I watch ones from the Thai refugee camps, 79-80; I watch the same newscaster in different suits, and fish out token words of French: “famine,” “guerre,” “mort.” Mostly I look at the faces, which are shell-shocked and gaunt.

I scroll down, down, down the list of archives, never-ending, thinking how long it would take someone to watch it all. I see “Rediscovered Propaganda Films” and click on it. There’s an English dubbed version, which is exciting. I watch and listen.

They show short films produced during the Khmer Rouge and narrate. They show staged shots from the camps, aerials of people like ants, carrying hoes and buckets, balanced on a stick over their shoulders, the way the soup ladies at the market do. They show close-ups of carefully selected workers smiling; they point out child workers and how to tell who was a New Person and who was an Old Person. They show clips of a poorly acted film Pol Pot directed, shortly before the regime fell—men reenact the defeat of Lon Nol’s army, twitching on the ground with arrows arranged around their bodies. The film was never made, and the shots I see now, in the dim viewing room, were assembled from found reels. I imagine them on a dirty floor somewhere, curled and brown.

The narrator points out inconsistencies: no one was supposed to have bourgeois personal items like watches or eyeglasses. But here’s Pol Pot, that smiling cult leader face, wearing a watch, and here’s Brother Number Three, wearing glasses, and here’s the regional leader Brother Number Two snubs, who’s later deemed a traitor and tortured and destroyed, along with his family. They freeze the frame on him, and he’s smiling, smiling.

This scene is at a party meeting; women with Soviet semi-automatic weapons march, and US artillery tanks roll past, left over from Lon Nol’s time. The setting looks vaguely familiar, and the narrator says: “The meeting took place in the otherwise empty Phnom Penh, at the Olympic Stadium.”

Holy shit, I think. Olympic Stadium is in the city center, near the guesthouse I stayed at when I arrived. Every dawn and dusk, they do aerobic dancing there, and people run and powerwalk and swing their limbs around; food vendors set up carts and plastic stools, and men play soccer in the dirt lot outside.

It’s my favorite place to go running in the city. In fact, I’m planning on going for a jog there tonight.

I squint at the screen and it’s all there: the steps I run, the contour of the stone tiers, the spires of the Royal Palace rising in the background. It’s newer and cleaner and nicer in the footage, but it’s the same place.

I don’t know what to do with that.

I walk back to my apartment with a funny little feeling in my stomach, like I’ve seen a ghost—like I’ve gotten up in the middle of night and everything familiar looks strange and different, and the thing that was sitting there waiting for me isn’t in the corner anymore but is moving across the room.

I put on my running shoes and spray some more mosquito repellent on, grab a water and go back downstairs, to the street to catch a motorbike over to the stadium.

It’s surreal when I get there. I walk past the rows of motorbikes and cars, the tuk-tuks covered in ads for the new Twilight movie. Teenage boys stare at me as I walk past their soccer game, say “Hello, hello!”

I walk beside the arena, which is locked and closed, my own face in the tinted windows. It was where the meeting had been, in the newsreel. I walk past where the shot of Pol Pot wearing a watch was, where Brother Number Two and Brother Number Three had trailed behind him, wearing eyeglasses and giving silent death sentences to smiling men.

A young boy carries a sack on his shoulder. He picks a plastic bottle out of the trash.

He walks closer to me, his eyes scouring the ground of recyclables.

I say hello, in Khmer, hand him my empty water bottle.

He smiles and puts it in his sack.

I say thank you, and walk towards the track, to jog where the tanks once rolled.

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State of the Writing Address

Reporting from my new apartment, midnight breeze and stray motorbike engines and the thud-thud of beetles against the terrace light:

My latest piece on Vela, “A Trip To The Castle,” went up yesterday. It’s about—well, yeah, a trip to a castle I took with my friend Genti in Shkoder, Albania. It was his first trip back to the castle, where he used to hang out as a teenager, since he left his home during the 97 civil war. It’s also about living with weird memories and ghosts and shit, and about being caught in that funny inbetween place: between cultures, between countries, between youth and age—not quite one or the other, not quite anything. I’m pretty stoked on it.

But, on that note, an update on the state of my writing and this blog:

In the 6 weeks since quitting my job and venturing off into my new life, my attitude and approach towards my writing has changed. A surprising amount of mental space has opened up. Writing is my only jam now, and I find myself thinking about it constantly, always kind of in the back of my head: what would make a good article, where I could it pitch to, etc.

And, since writing is (for now) my only source of income, a lot of stuff I’d normally be putting up here is migrating over to other (read: paid) outlets. I’m going to become a much more frequent contributor over at Matador, where they’ve expressed interest in covering my transition into expat-hood.

So since mama’s got rent to pay and street food to buy, you’ll be following a lot more links instead of reading stuff directly on this blog. It’ll be fun. I hope.

And a big big thank you to everyone who contributed towards my project and towards making all this happen. A proper thank-you post is coming, along with cool swag like handmade postcards and zines and stuff (which will undergo their own adventures, in the Cambodian postal system).

Thank you all for the love, for the reading, and for following along this journey with me. Makes this Lonely Girl—sitting, alone of course, in her new apartment on the other side of the earth—feel a lot less lonely.

Arriving Back in My New Home: Anti-Culture Shock and A Broken Necklace

In the shower this morning, rinsing the dried sweat of night chills from my dehydrated, gasping body, I noticed it: my necklace was gone.

When I came out of the bathroom, I saw it there, tangled and delicate, next to the pillow, the sheets that had stayed miraculously white during my 2-day readjustment sickness. It wasn’t my favorite necklace, an innocuous dangle of silver that clung close to the skin. At some point over the years, it’d become my traveling necklace—I’d put it on one of the first days of a trip, then just leave it, forget about until I’d noticed myself absently fingering the chain, digging the tip of the winged heart under my nails.

I picked it up. The chain had broken.

I smiled. If this were a novel, it’d be a metaphor.

I arrived in Phnom Penh nearly a week ago—flew in, which I hadn’t done before, but even at the airport, that familiar smell of mildew and cooking rice, overripe fruit and a faint whiff of urine underlying it all. I took a taxi (when’s the next time I’ll be in a car?), and we rumbled over pitted roads exploded with smoking meat, food stalls, cell phone shops, baskets of fruit, motorbikes and bodies, bodies everywhere. It didn’t seem insane or lawless or overwhelming—it just felt really good.

I dumped my bags at the guesthouse—the first one I’d gone to, back in February, which made it feel like I was coming full circle—and went out for an early evening stroll. My feet knew the way, my feet remembered how to traverse the traffic, how to cross the street (slow and steady and smooth), my feet took me to the pharmacy and a corner market and a street stall where I sat on a plastic stool and ate soup for $1. I went down the block to the sticky rice stall; I bought bananas for the next morning. I bought a giant fucking coconut, and the little lady hacked it open with a machete and stuck a straw in it and I took my first sip and, after 4+ months of $3 Vita Coco, a long sigh was unleashed in me.

Which is all basically to say I’ve been experiencing an extreme and bizarre lack of culture shock. I had more culture shock entering Albania from Italy, or any time I’ve reentered the US after traveling. What is about this place? How did it come to feel like home, after only a couple months last Spring?

I’ve spent the last few days hitting up my favorite cafes and street stalls and going to meetings and jogging at Olympic Stadium and trolling the town for For Rent signs (and getting one of those requisite, paralyzing stomach flus that gives you chills in 90 degree weather, that leave you sleek and lean and mean after, ready to take over the town). And all the while, I’ve kind of been looking over my shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I’d expected my arrival back to be something like the final scene of The Graduate. All this effort and stress and energy and hullabaloo, goodbyes and good riddances, and then a month+ of traveling, cruising around the planet in the most unprepared and overpacked of fashions. I’d been kind of delaying it, you know, worried that I’d get back here and it’d be like that moment at the back of bus when Elaine looks over at Ben and he just stares forward and you see them both thinking—“Well now what the fuck?”

And I suppose there’s still time for that. Plenty of time, and I suppose there’ll be moments of that. But so far, all I’ve had is this feeling of being, not home, but somewhere close to home. I’d been doubting myself right up to the very end, right up till my Air Asia plane hit the tarmac. But more than ever, I keep having this feeling that I’ve made the right decision, that I’m in the right place.

I’m here. Really here. I’m not traveling anymore—just look at the necklace.

I Ain’t Got No Home: Six Weeks Til Phnom Penh

Goodbye apartment.

So I’m gone. I’ve left. It’s done.

I had this vision of what leaving would be like: bittersweet and semi-heartbreaking, in that really annoying way, like a bad romantic movie, the great lost love or some shit. I thought I’d have a lot more profound things to say about it—poignant insights and such—and I thought I’d be blogging a ton, documenting the process.

But I just got really busy, ping-ponging around, and it felt just like I was running a ton of errands, rather than dismantling a life and saying goodbyes that will have to last a long fucking time. It didn’t even feel like I was leaving for a trip. It just felt really fucking surreal.

Giving hugs and saying goodbye, I had a version of that feeling you have as a kid, when you know that there’s something big going on that you can’t quite grasp. So you carry on with your playing—a Skipper doll in the corner of a San Franciscan Victorian—and you try to hide, and when the grown-ups notice you, you go through the motions, emulations and approximations of what the people around you are doing, what you thinking you’re supposed to do or feel. Because really, you don’t feel much of anything. But you know you should.

So basically, it’s a helluva a lot lonelier than I thought it’d feel. But otherwise it doesn’t feel like anything. I know it’s coming—it’s in the post, so to speak—but I don’t think any of this will hit me until I’ve been settled in Phnom Penh a few weeks.

But in the meantime, I’m roaming.

All I can say is that it struck me as a really good idea at the time: I had a shitton of frequent flier miles, did a little digging, and figured out that it would cost the same to a) fly directly to Phnom Penh, and b) take a meandering, round-the-world route. So of course, I opted for the latter.

And of course I can’t actually afford the round-the-world segment, but that’s beside the point. Here’s the plan: 5 days in New York; fly to Rome; 2 weeks in Italy, making my way up to Milan for a food festival a work buddy is in; fly to Tirana, AKA my soulmate city; 2 weeks in Albania; fly back to Rome and catch a flight to Cairo; party with Nick for 5 days; fly to Bangkok; stock up on Western products like thyroid medication and contact lens solution, then make my way over to Phnom Penh.

It’s kinda epic.

And it could all be a big distraction from what’s really going on—the fact that I’ve completely dismantled, sold off and left my life at home, and am embarking on this crazy-ass new life, where I don’t know where my next check will be coming from, or if I’ll even be able to do what I’ve set out to do—write this book on this uber-intense topic I barely have access to to begin with. So yeah, I’ll roam a little first.

But it’ll be different, I suspect. Already there’s a few things different: I’ve decided that it’d be a really good idea to haul half my life with me, so I’ve got two bulging bags full of tshirts and cardigans and patterned tights it’ll be too goddamn hot to wear in Cambodia anyway. I have no guidebooks and no real itinerary, just two nights booked in Rome and some mass FB messages sent out to friends in places where I’ll be.

But I think the biggest difference, which also hasn’t hit me yet, is that whenever I’ve traveled before, I’ve always had something to come back to. I’ve had this base I was operating from, a life poised and ready and waiting for me back home: a job, a car, gym memberships, a place to live. I’ve never set out with nothing behind me, nothing waiting, save a half-closet of boxes and the people I love, who I’ve all said goodbye to, without really feeling it.

I landed at JFK last night around 11:30, texted my friend I’m staying with. He’d just gotten home himself, after a week spent working on an art show in New Jersey—he apologized in advance for his apartment being in shambles.

“No worries!” I wrote back. “I don’t even have a home anymore.”

And then I started humming Woody Guthrie and haven’t been able to stop. But still, still—none of it feels real.

Notes On Leaving: I Am Not A Waitress Anymore

I am not a waitress anymore.

It feels weird to say, weirder than I’d expected. I changed my Facebook status today, from “Works at” to “Has worked at,” and it was like breaking up with someone—the finality of it, at the top of your profile: “so I guess this is it.”

I am not a waitress anymore.

I never really think of it as a core part of who I am. You know, when you think of your life, all the components that make up that person you are and that life you muddle through, “waitress” is never at the top of the list. Or even close to the top. But the truth is, I’ve been doing it for a long time. Ten years. Always an ends to a means, something I fell into, never part of my self-definition. It’s been that thing that happens while you’re making other plans—somewhere, when I wasn’t looking, waitressing became a central part of my life, who I am.

So it feels weird to think I’m no longer a waitress.

I remember hearing that in French culture people don’t begin cocktail conversations but asking what a person does for a living (we Americans love to endow the French with enlightened qualities we have no real way of substantiating)—they talk about, I suppose, far more cultured and important things, the substance of a person, what they think and feel and believe in. I was thirteen, in a French A class I ended up dropping out of, when I heard this, and I’ve remembered it, sometimes try to play a game with myself where I meet someone and have to engage in that chit-chat and try not to ask them what they do. I never last long.

And what will I say now? Now that I’m not a waitress?

It was strange to leave, stranger than I’d expected. Surreal. I love the place I’ve worked the last year and a half—I love the food and the people and the vibe and the money and how close it is to my apartment and how I can wear whatever I want and listen to good music and bullshit with my tables like they were my friends. So I knew it would be hard to leave such a good gig.

I sat on the back patio on my last night—which didn’t feel like a last night but just another night—and two more people told me how awesome they thought my moving was, how bad-ass and brave, and I told them how it felt neither bad-ass nor brave, just really fucking surreal. They’d said at menu meeting how much they’d miss me, how they knew I’d do great things, and they said it again in the card they gave me later, candles and a fancy ice-cream cake, at the 12:30 at night, when I blushed and ate two pieces and felt sick.

People gave me hugs and loved on me and were unbelievably sweet and I tried my best to soak it all in, but it still felt surreal. I basked in the love and the dimming heat of the pizza oven, and then I walked out to my car. Alone. Because leaving is like that.

I went home and threw out all my wine notes. I took out my wine key and tossed my apron on the floor. It still felt like something I needed, something I would pick up in a day or two, sauce stains and all, and tie back on. It didn’t feel unnecessary yet, like a house key after you’ve moved. Because leaving is like that.

So I’m not a waitress anymore. I guess that makes me a writer. Or just unemployed. (Which could be the same thing.) I’m not sure what it makes me. It definitely doesn’t make me French. For now it’s just surreal and strange and much sadder than I’d expected.

Because leaving is like that too.

A Totally Normal Pre-Departure Freak-Out

So. It was bound to happen: I had my first pre-departure freak-out today.

Actually, I’m kind of still having it, in the midst of it, as I’m writing this. I’m sitting here, on one of the most goddamn beautiful days we’ve had in a shitty/foggy anti-summer, surrounded by trash bags filled with the various components that compose my life. I’m nauseous and hazy feeling and I can’t really cry anymore and I don’t know what to do with myself. So I’m writing a blog post about how I had a freak-out, and I’m writing about it in the past tense, because it’s easier to pretend it’s over and done with, passed like a nasty little storm cloud on an otherwise perfect, Indian Summer day.

It started with money. It always starts with money. There isn’t enough of it. Not ever and especially now. Maybe if I had a trust fund or a nest egg or a looming inheritance, but I’ve got none of that. I’ve got about half the money I wanted to have, and it’s entirely possible that I’ll land in Phnom Penh with only a couple hundred bucks to my name.

Yes, far less capable people with far fewer skills than I have landed in a similar situation and done just fine. (This is what I keep telling myself at least.) But I’ve always had a job, always had a reliable source of income, and I’m about to give that up for a very long time.

I keep recounting, obsessively adding sums and subtracting costs, best-cases and worst-cases and most-probable projections. They’re all fucked, I decided this morning. And I’m fucked with them.

And then I got to thinking about all there is to do. It’s a lot. Moving out of an apartment, going to the dump, going to the Goodwill, dismantling a life. There’s tons of people to see, appointments to keep, loose ends to tie up—disputes over medical bills to resolve and a car to sell. There’s goodbyes to orchestrate, a wedding to go to.

I don’t want to do any of it.

I want to cancel everything and curl up on my soggy-soft mattress, thin old sheets over blood stains, and stare out the window and do fucking none of it. I want to be Vicodin-floaty, detached, numb, not here.

But that’s the addict in me, who always wants to escape. And I don’t think that addict will ever go away, just kind of live inside me, flare up sometimes—times like this—but usually just more subdued, in the corner, a quiet but insistent whisper.

Of course, I know I’m going to do it all, take care of it. And of course I won’t be dropped on my ass and of course I’ll find a way to scrape together enough money and be okay. Of course it’s normal, I suppose, to freak out a bit before a huge transition—I’d be a little suspect if I didn’t freak out. Of course the sadness and the anxiety and the feeling, not of panic but of monumental, mind-wracking, gut-wrenching worry, in the face of a big blank unknown—of course all this is totally normal, right?

Right?

My Memory Lane Is Littered With Poems

So I’ve started up on the going-through-boxes bit of moving: digging up, spreading out, wrenching off dusty lids and getting elbow-deep in scraps of memories—you know, the “ugh” of the to-do list. Not so much because it’s tedious and time-consuming, but more because of what it opens, draws you back into—old mix tapes and yellowed papers and skinny sheets of photo negatives, the cluttered corners of your own life.

So I brew a phat cup of coffee and put on a song that seems fitting (even if it’s just the shitty YouTube version) and let the confetti of my life explode across the bedroom floor.

It’s a kind of Memory Lane without street patterns or building numbers (and so in that way, kind of like Phnom Penh itself)—just a hodgepodge of unordered relics and artifacts. Memories are one thing, because you can distort them, whether you mean to or not; you can warp them over time, into what you want them to be or need them to be. The actual physical crap you accumulate is more like the facts—the hard, plastic facts, an old bedside clock covered in stickers—of what your life is and has been. If an autobiography is the facts, and a memoir is the memories (and thus inherently flawed, and those flaws often telling us more than the facts), then my room and my life have turned into an explosion of upturned facts, mini-autobiographies presented non-sequentially, with just a dusty trail of memory to string together any narrative meaning.

And you start to wonder, from an anthropological standpoint, what your life would look like to someone, if all they had to look at were your possessions. (I think there was actually an MTV dating show with that as the premise, and I’m embarrassed that I know that.) But this is more than just your possessions—the things you’ve saved. They tell a kind of story, it seems, about you, one that you probably couldn’t tell yourself—one that you’re probably only vaguely aware exists.

Old fake ID, never once used to drink, only to get into shows.

Sketch by an old ex-boyfriend, found in a notepad

Show flier, and about 100 old Gilman cards. #scenecred

Second print piece I ever published, in August 2000.

New Kids On The Block newsletter I self-published back in the 2nd grade. Note the rub-on letters. #scenecred

45-page novella I wrote in the 4th grade, about little girls who had a secret club.

Mountain o' notebooks, zines, poems, etc.

And I think if you looked at it, without knowing me, you’d think, “Holy shit, this girl loves to write.” Cause that’s what I thought—surprised by it, startled like an animal in the lights of it, the reams of evidence—which I guess goes to show you how little you can know yourself. Like I’d forgotten, you know, how much writing has always been with me: the poetry and the zines and the pseudo-chapter books and the stories I dictated to my dad before I even knew how to write, that he transcribed for me and I somehow saved, in a dusty old box all these years later.

It’s kind of astounding, the sheer volume, and that some of the lines strike me as good. Really good. As in, “Holy shit, I wrote that!” It’s been a curious experience, like viewing my life from the outside, and it’s caused me to ask myself: Why? Where does this all come from? And the truth is, I couldn’t tell you why I write, where this need in me comes from, anymore than I can tell you why I travel. I’ve read great essays on these topics, even tried to write a few myself, but in my most honest of moments, I have to admit that I have no idea why, except that there’s that thing in me “that will not be still.”

So I guess you could say that digging out all this crap has helped to remind me of who I am, the fact of who I am (which might be different from what I tell myself)—that I didn’t just make this up, that I really have always wanted to write. And more than that: I’ve always written. Funny, that I’d have needed all this evidence to remind me.

But then there’s reality, which is that you can’t hang on to everything, save all these Xeroxs and yellow legal pads and notebooks that you really only ever go through when you move. It’s too much to possibly ever read, and besides, I’m trying to avoid the whole storage unit thing. So I set up two piles, the larger of which goes into the recycling bin, and I sift through and save the gems and take my own little stroll through Memory Lane.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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