Posts Tagged 'leaving'

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.

Goodbye Southeast Asia

Goodbye motorbikes droning and motorbikes honking.
Goodbye face masks and flesh-colored socks,
Goodbye pajama suits.

Goodbye dragon fruit, goodbye jack fruit,
green mango with chili salt from a push-cart.
Goodbye cane juice in a plastic bag.

Goodbye cows in road and chickens on the bus,
Goodbye water buffalo rising
from puddles in the rice paddies.

Goodbye orange robes and incense,
clusters of bananas
fanning open at the altar.

Goodbye karaoke
and pop music videos on the bus.
Goodbye wedding tents.

Goodbye mosquito nets.
Goodbye heat rash and swamp bra.
Goodbye hand-washed underpants hung to dry.
Goodbye cheap cigarettes and expensive muesli.

Goodbye “cheap cheap,” goodbye “same same,”
Goodbye mile-long mole hair,
Goodbye aerobic dancing at dusk,
Goodbye tissues under the table,
plastic stools and street stalls.
Goodbye haggling with fingers and haggling with calculators,
Goodbye maze of the market,
sleeping on top a pile of clothes—
Goodbye tubs of flopping fish and plucked limp birds
hanging from hooks.

Goodbye currency conversions and foreign transaction fees.
Goodbye photocopied US money
half-burnt on the sidewalk.
Goodbye no sidewalk,
walking in the street.
Goodbye bootleg guidebooks with cheap spines,
bootleg DVDs with blurry casings.

Goodbye thunderstorms,
Goodbye heat.

Goodbye widows with shaved heads,
Goodbye schoolgirls in sarongs.
Goodbye children begging and children waving,
children perched
between their parents on a motorbike
sleeping amid the fury.

The Un-Bittersweet of Leaving Phnom Penh

It’s not as bittersweet as I’d expected.

It’s been six weeks in Phnom Penh. That’s the longest I’ve sat still anywhere—the longest I’ve spent consecutively in any city other than Oakland.

I’m embarrassed to admit that; I feel like I should have lived abroad, should have studied abroad, should have spent a summer somewhere, should have should have should have. But the truth is, I’m still a relative newcomer to the travel game, and for the first few years I was stuck in the going-going-going of it all: ticking off lists, counting countries and cramming in as many destinations as possible. It seemed like a waste of time to stay anywhere any longer than necessary.

Sure, I’d entertained elaborate fantasies about moving abroad. But really, if I couldn’t sit still in another city for more than 10 days, how could I really know if I could be happy, could have a life, abroad? Or, hell, even out of Oakland?

Part of the reason I got an apartment in Phnom Penh is that I wanted to feel like I lived there, that I wasn’t just passing through. I wanted a little glimpse into what that life would be like. I wanted keys; I wanted to shop for toilet paper; I wanted to “Sua s’dei” the neighbors and have a cafe where they knew my order. I wanted to feel little roots sprouting—the beginnings of being grounded, like the wind could blow and I wouldn’t fall over, be blown over with it.

When my bus arrived last week, bringing me back from my three-day visa run/refugee camp search, I hustled down the steps. I booked it past the cluster of tuk-tuk drivers, crossed the street without looking (the Cambodian way), dove between the tents of the night market, walked directly to my favorite food stall, kicked off my shoes and slurped down a Khmer soup under the night’s haze, the warm breeze from the river. I felt like I’d come home.

So I was expecting to be sad to leave. I was expecting to go around doing my silent rounds of “last times” with twinges of melancholy, that little lonely longing that you can almost fall in love with, more than the thing itself.

But it wasn’t as bittersweet as I’d expected.

Sometimes it comes to this: Nescafe from a plastic mug. And plastic flowers. Classy as shit.

Saying good-bye to the people was sad. I’d made some rad friends, had gotten close to a few cool girls. People tend to be on a three- to six-month rotation in Phnom Penh, and in a few months, almost everyone I know here will have moved on. And it was definitely sad to leave my apartment, with its metal table and one chair, its thin mattress and fuzzy TV, the plastic kitchenware I’d purchased at the market down the street—where I’d go to eat soup and the women would squat down and stare at me, giggling. I’d giggle back, and I’ll miss that too.

But still, it wasn’t as bittersweet as I’d expected.

I’ve taken to comparing cities to people. Boys, to be specific. Because cities have personalities the same way people do, and you have relationships with cities the same way you (I) have relationships to boys with (well, no, they’re actually much healthier).

So Rome is a really sophisticated, well-groomed and worldly guy that I like to keep track of, that I like to get lunch with from time to time, and talk about art and culture and history, but who I could never actually be with—we’re just too different. Tirana is the fun one, the one I met one crazy night at a crazy dance party, who I connected with under the lights—the one I felt like was made for me, as though anyone could ever really be made for anyone else, as though you could ever really know anyone after a week, or a month or even a year, years.

Buenos Aires is the one who got away, the eyes exchanged between subway cars, or maybe the one whose number you got and lost and still catch yourself thinking of, years later, looking for some scribbled scrap of paper in old jeans pockets without even realizing it. San Francisco is the neighbor boy you grew up with, who you know is really attractive and cool and who you really get along with, but you just couldn’t ever date.

And Phnom Penh?

Phnom Penh’s not terribly handsome or debonair, not the stuff of little-girl dress-up fantasies. He’s not super cultured and he’s got some obvious flaws. He’s a little beat-up; he’s been through shit. And there are things about him that drive you nuts. If you were to write a list of the perfect mate, there’s a lot of things Phnom Penh wouldn’t have. But the big ones, the ones that are really important and that really fucking count, when you’re up against the wall and the wind is blowing and you need something firm, some kind of roots to hold you down—he’s got them.

He fits. He’s not perfect, and neither are you.

And so it wasn’t so bittersweet to leave him. The same as when you leave for a trip and you just know the person you’re leaving behind, that you’re coming back to eventually, isn’t going to cheat on you or be shady. You don’t even have to think about it, worry about it. It doesn’t occur to you to worry; you’ve just got that confidence, you know? That you’ve got them and they’ve got you, whether you like it or not—like you were picked for each other, matched to each other, though you’re not sure by who.

But does it matter?

Saying Goodbye

People are trying to say goodbye, and I’m trying to let them.

I’m no good at goodbyes. Not other people’s, but my own. I’m uncomfortable with leavings, and, with my trip only four days away, I’m getting plenty of opportunities for unease.

Three months is just long enough to feel like A Long Time, just long enough to be not just a trip, but an absence, a leave of absence—not just from a job, but from my life. I keep noticing myself wanting to hide, to disappear, to tiptoe off into the darkness—which isn’t really darkness or even blankness, but a big unknown, unimagined and undrawn, the painter’s dream of the painting before he paints it.

I’m uncomfortable with attention. I don’t have birthday parties. I’ve never had an official last day at a job, have always chosen to just dwindle off, fade away, sneak out of the backdoor of a particular life, saying things like, “I’ll be back,” or “I’ll be filling in shifts,” or “I don’t know exactly when I’ll be leaving.” Which is never true, and I know it isn’t true, but I half-believe myself—which becomes full-believing, a believing I distract myself with so that I don’t have to feel sad or wistful or guilty or anything at all. I can push away people’s expression of attachment, their love and care, keep it all at a distance. By the time I’m gone, even I haven’t noticed.

People are trying to say goodbye, and I’m trying to let them.

It’s a different kind of leaving this time. It’s a temporary leaving, like all trips for me, but a more bittersweet one. Why? Because my life is good, and I’m sad to leave it, even if it is for a something positive, a project I believe in, a story I’ve wanted to tell. Because I’ve been working on building true relationships, on truly letting people in, on being vulnerable in a way I never have been. Because I’m letting myself acknowledge that I’m going to miss it all—my muay thai and my yoga, my bed and my backporch, the smell of my favorite coffee and of my roommate’s hair products. And most of all the people.

I’ve been feeling these strange urges to tell people things: “It’s been really rad getting to know you”; “I’m gonna miss our Saturday mornings”; “I really appreciate all your support the last few months.” As though I’m not coming back, as though some piece of me won’t be coming back, the precious little heavy thing I’ve carried and carried.

Is this what they mean by intimacy? Is this what they mean by being truly intimate with another person, by letting it in instead of keeping it all at arms’ length, all of it, always, withdrawing and sneaking off and disappearing into some blank place inside myself?

People are trying to say goodbye, and I’m trying to let them.

“Aw, I’m gonna miss you,” Benji said in the middle of the shift.

“Oh, I’ll be back,” I started in. “Three months isn’t that long.”

I paused, wiping the rim of the plate. I took a deep breath, and looked at him. “Thank you. Goodbyes are hard for me. But I’m gonna miss you too.”

Leaving Town, in Your Sleep

It’s nearing the end of National Poetry Month, so I thought—why not torture everyone with another unpublished poem? It’s a favorite pastime of mine (unlike, apparently, regularly writing poetry anymore).

This one’s about a year old. Anyone that’s ever wanted to skip town in the middle of the night will know what I’m talking about.

Leaving Town

I packed my bags while you were sleeping.


I took the image of your face, half your face, cheeks stubbled and gasping.


I took your smell: deodorant and hair gel, wine-breath, wine-sweat—flesh.


I took the light, the streetlamp angling through bare branches, through the window, the thin curtain; I took the shadows on the wall.


I folded, carefully, your rolled-up sleeves and work shoes, your paperback and pile of black.


I took your arms, huddled around your head and clenched. I took the parted lips and phantom twitch, the stalking eyelids.


I tucked it all away, inside, a suitcase with a lock. I sent it off ahead of me, to some unknown destination, some other life, where it might find me. Where it might rattle around in the cargo compartment, my heart. Where it might never arrive, get lost among all the other bags, carrying all the other tender items, wrapped in old t-shirts and the smell of old lovers. Where it might sit and wait, in the dim corner of a dim station, to be reclaimed, reopened. Where it might grow old, in the part of me that won’t grow old, that will go on loving you like this, in this room and this unlivable life.

Packing Up and Taking Off, By Numbers

I got this idea from a Matador Travelers Notebook series, By the Numbers, reminiscent of the Harper’s Index (the only part of the magazine I ever manage to read all the way through).


Number of hours till take-off: 19.33

Number of good-bye hugs given in the last 36 hours: 9

Anticipated number in the next 16 hours: 4

Number of underpants planned to be packed: 5

Number of underpants currently packed: 0

Number of books packed: 4

Number of non-guidebooks packed: 1

Budget, per day, in US dollars: 54.76

Percentage chance, based on previous travels, that I will end at or under budget: 80%

Cost, per day, of at-home expenses during trip (rent, health insurance, etc): 21.78

Percentage chance, based on reality, that at-home expenses will end under budget: 0%

One-way BART fare to SFO, in US dollars: 8.3

Number of nights currently set up with places to stay: 10

Number of couchsurfing requests written in last 2 weeks: 6

Number of couchsurfing requests accepted: 3

Number of Survival Arabic podcasts downloaded: 12

Percentage change, based on previous travels, that I’ll actually listen to said podcasts: 15%

Number of articles slated to be published during trip: 2

Number of submitted articles floating in the nethers of editors’ inboxes: 4

Number of hours, per day, I plan to write: 1

Percentage chance, based on previous travels, that I will meet writing goal: 25%

Percentage chance, based on new blog and current upswing in writing trend, that I will meet writing goal: 75%

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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