The first time

It’s been almost ten years now, the memories are blurry. But that feeling won’t let itself be forgotten. 

Maybe not all of us have been through this particular roller-coaster of emotions, so imagine : in the morning, you pack your bags. Two backpacks, a big and a small one, with all the essentials to get by for six months in a foreign country. Six months. No big deal. Your parents drive you to the airport, where your whole family is assembled to say goodbye. Because you’re leaving for Asia, for a six-month internship in an NGO. You’re twenty-two years old, fresh off an Erasmus in Spain, in the middle of your Master’s degree. This is not an academically-approved internship. Nobody seems to care, least of all you. 

You hug and kiss everyone goodbye at the gate. Sister and brother-in-law, dad, mom. You hug your grandma a little longer. You don’t know this yet, but saying goodbye to these people will never get easier. Every time you do it, it gets a little bit harder. Eventually, you won’t want to leave anymore. But it’s only the second time in your life you’re doing this, and you can’t wait to get out of here. Spread your broken wings and learn to fly.

If I remember correctly, the layover is in Mumbai. You only have dollars on you and everything is in rupees. You take out a new notebook, a beautifully ornate one. You already had a thing for notebooks. You write some heartfelt drivel inside it about goodbyes and adventure. I know now: you weren’t scared enough. You had no way to prepare, to know what was to come, but that much is clear to me now : a twenty-two year old should have been much more afraid to move to the other side of the world, where they didn’t know anyone and the imposing shadow of their older sibling would follow them everywhere.

Anyway. Plane rides are plane rides. You hate flying, but you enjoy the opportunity to watch blockbusters. Another layover in Bangkok. You know that airport by heart now, isn’t it funny? You thought nothing of it back then.

The plane ride to Phnom Penh is still, to this day, the worst, scariest plane ride of your life. But at this point, you’ve been awake for over twenty hours, who cares if you crash? Not you. The plane sinks into an air pocket, you screw your eyes shut. When you open them and glance outside the window, there it is. The outskirts of the capital during the rainy season : lakes of brown and green, flooded rice fields and dirt roads, tiny tin houses. An ugly mess. It doesn’t look at all like the postcards and the pictures in the Lonely Planet. 

You’re disappointed, a little bit. You know nothing.

Defying all expectations, the plane lands safely in Pochentong airport. Well, this is it. No going back now. 

The air, outside on the tarmac. The air is hot and liquid, moving around you, dragging against your skin, permeating your hair with the smell of dust, of sun, of sticky rice and rotting waste and gasoline. You’ve been outside for fifteen seconds and you’re sweating in your striped red and white t-shirt. Welcome to the rest of your life. 

An enthusiastic tuk-tuk driver takes you on, yes yes, he knows the guesthouse you’re telling him to go to, yes. Okay Guesthouse, sure, but listen, there’s another guesthouse, right next to it, cheaper, much better. He’ll take you there, okay? You should be arguing with the enthusiastic tuk-tuk driver, but you’re a twenty-two year old baby alone in a foreign country and you’ve been awake for close to thirty hours and it’s the middle of a hot, humid August afternoon. You’ve survived a very eventful plane ride: you just want a bed. The tuk-tuk driver kicks his moto to life. You go along, clutching your bag to your chest. 

This is the very first time you get to experience this : the busy streets of Phnom Penh after it rained, in the middle of the afternoon. The chaos of traffic, minivans, motodops and bicycles, street vendors, beggars, temples and boulevards, squares, parks, the Royal Palace and the riverside. Trash, plastic bags littering every corner of the city, the heat over rapidly fading puddles, potholes, strident music and kids playing on narrow sidewalks. 

Chaos. An absolute nightmare. A total mess. So much unbridled life. You’re exhausted and your eyes are drinking in as much as they can and your heart is fit to burst. You know, right then and there. This wasn’t a mistake. This place is made for you, or you are made for it, or you were both made for each other. It doesn’t really matter, the only thing that matters is this : you were looking for a place to call home for a while, a place where your soul vibrates, where you belong. A mess for a mess. And you know this will be hard, of course it will. But you’ve found it. This is where you get to grow.

My feet pound a lonely beat on the pavement

Here we go : nobody was waiting for this but I wrote it anyway, a sad lockdown-fueled poem about how much I love my city. Chance had me walking through Place de Brouckère one cold evening and its emptiness brought me to tears. Strange times…

Anyway, I hope everyone is safe and healthy and staying inside. <3

Wind-beaten squares pour into dark avenues
Desolate maze of cobblestoned limbs
Not even a ghost would dare
Put a sheet outside

What a strange world
Where solidarity means isolation
An open hand is fear
An empty room feels safe

Brussels, you taught me
How to love fading into the crowd
How to drown out sorrows in noise
How to find kinship in strangers

Brussels, the desert of your soul
Still moves me

Our house in the middle of our street

There was a white two story house in the village behind the NGO I worked at. There was a little paved yard in front of it where we parked the motos, and a concrete outside staircase that lead to the second floor. We painted the walls inside, blue frescas against a white background. My bedroom door had a red and black Dalek on it. My roommate’s had a grey and white cubist face. The kitchen was sparse and no matter how much I tried to keep it livable, the bathroom was always Satan’s domain. In the height of summer, we had no running water. 

A meager stream went around the house, so there was a little bridge that would lead to the yard gate. Once on a drunken night, a friend’s moto missed the bridge and drowned in the stream. A traditional monument to the ancestors stood proud and golden in the yard. There was probably a Cambodian yiey buried there some years before. 

We lived in this house, three white people obsessed with each other, playing house, pretending we were functional adults. The house was right in the margin of the village where most of the kids from our NGO lived with their families. The whole village knew when the white people would leave and enter the house, who they were with, and what was happening inside. We were sort of privileged zoo animals. Sometimes on the weekend, they would bring us soup and rice to eat. I guess we looked pitiful. 

For a while we had a cat, Katoy, who was not our cat but we didn’t know that. There were parties at the house, and people we didn’t know sleeping over, and boyfriends coming to stay and never leaving. There was a distinct lack of cleaning going on. There was a sad girl who spent an impressive amount of time watching TV shows in her room. There was a dude who didn’t have a door (or a fourth wall) to his bedroom and who would bring girls over. There was a separate kitchen and living room and life going on upstairs. 

There was always someone staying over. There was a lot of crappy music being danced to and Disney movie nights. There was a mold creature hatching and growing in the rice cooker, and trash accumulating in the yard, unpicked, unburned.

We were obsessed with each other, the three barangs in their white house. Sometimes we were merciless to each other. A distinct lack of empathy and the same fucked-up loneliness. It was a surreal experience, to live with my best friends, my soul-siblings, my family away from home, the people I loved most in the whole of Cambodia, and be so disconnected from them, more so every day that passed. When we all decided to move out and live separately, it was such a sad, disheartening, obvious conclusion. We were not obsessed with each other anymore.

But even all those years later, this time when we decided to move in together, to fix up the house and clean and paint and make it habitable, this time when we moved all our stuff in with a single tuk tuk and tried to make the house beautiful, this time where our hands and clothes were coated in blue paint and I flew to town on my motorbike to buy bread and Nutella so that we could have a late breakfast on the outside staircase, all those times I stole the white boy’s kramas and hoodies to wear on chilly evenings and all the drunken conversations on the porch and the regenerative face masks in front of a movie on a hungover Sunday afternoon, the times when we would come home from work and find a crowd already there, ready to offer us a beer or a hug or a game of cards… even though it wasn’t easy and we eventually grew apart, these are moments I cherish. 

These people, these three twenty-something idiots who thought they had all of love and friendship figured out because they had each other : I love them. I wish they could have been better to each other.

Tokyo Day 3 – Just finished to build my wings

I spent a lot of time thinking about this and trying to make sense of how I feel – about this trip, about home, about myself. The thing is, Tokyo is probably not the city for me. Japan is certainly not the country for me. It is founded on order and the collective and I’m all about chaos and big personalities creating communities. Chaos here is subtly controlled. There’s something stoic about the people that I find fascinating and that reminds me of my second home. But there’s no spark of total insanity behind it. I miss Cambodia.

So anyway, I am not vibing with the place. It is not love at first sight. Though I adore all the little Honda motorbikes (SuperCubs and Dreams, two-wheeled loves of my life) in pristine condition I see everywhere, and it feels easy walking through these giant streets swarming with people, it’s not the rollercoaster of emotions I was expecting. And that’s fine. Some places I do not need to long for.

But I’m getting better at understanding how things work and paying with coins and being curious about what’s going on behind the polish. And I wish I was a little braver and went into restaurants and stayed out later and tried more things. I just don’t know what things. Yet.

I do miss my friends, my people, my souls too. But I think it is getting easier to be on my own. I can do this.

SONG CREDITS: Gang Gang Schiele – Hyukoh

Tokyo Day 2 – Walk walk fashion baby

Anxiety! It spikes through my body in waves, like a bad trip. I am filled with a low hum of anxiety about this trip all the time, because I am alone in a foreign country and it would be crazy not to. But this particular anxiety pertains to the real life that is waiting for me at home, the things I tried to avoid by coming here. I wish I didn’t have to face these things, but maybe now is exactly the right time, with some distance, weighed down by jetlag. Negative stuff doesn’t just go away because you ignore it. It will take me all my life to learn that lesson. Facing difficult things head on is… not my strong suit.

Anyway, who has time for that crap when you’ve got Harajuku to discover? I bought a red, lolita-adjacent flowy dress especially for this, and goddammit I’m gonna wear the crap out of it.

Harajuku: an odd mix of big avenues piled high with pricey brands Vuitton-Dior-Chanel-whatever, imposing malls and winding alleys full of designer stores and select thrift shops.

The subway takes me directly to Takeshita-dori: the belly of the beast. The sun is out today, the city is vibrant and full, this particular fervor I understand. Steep stairs lead to skull-adorned shops where they sell necklaces with tiny silver locks…. you know the ones. My Nana-loving heart bleeds. Rainbow-colored cotton candy, cream filled crepes, rad pumps and platform shoes so high they would bring you to tears. Takeshita-dori doesn’t disappoint.

I walk the slightly more chill avenues and streets of Otome-sando, enjoying this flirty little thing we’ve got going on, the sun and I. Slight wardrobe mishap: the wind loves to play with my flowy dress, which, by definition, flows. I hold on to my dress Marilyn-style every two seconds and pray I’m not actually flashing anyone.

At Laforet, I find vegan ramen. Vegan! Ramen! Three cheers for food. Well-fed and with renewed energy, I head to a vintage thrift store, get totally lost on the way there, end up strolling through the tiny streets of a residential neighbourhood, sunny and quiet. This is so nice. I take advantage of the quiet to turn up the music.

But like all fireworks and all sunsets we all burn in different ways: you are a fast explosion, I’m the embers

Google Maps points me in the right direction and while night falls, I head to Akihabara, temple of otaku culture, according to the guide. Well, okay. It is brightly colored and imposing. Okay. There are manga and gaming shops. Cool. I’m freezing in my flowy dress and there’s nothing charming about this place. Also, my feet hurt. I head back to the hostel.

That evening, I get a call from my dad. He’s in the south of Laos, getting ready to cross over to the Dark Side (aka Cambodia). We spend a few minutes shitting all over the French: family traditions.

I’ve got museum tickets for tomorrow and a brand new Harajuku sweater to show off. Life is good.

SONG CREDITS : Nightingale/December Song – Sunset Rubdown