Angelene moved from Singapore to France in August 2017.
It was a wet Parisian week with the flooding of the Seine. The downpours had caused the water to rise, barring boats from sailing under bridges, covering the sidewalks I used to jog on.
Finally the ebb and flow had petered out to its usual nonchalance. Text messages from friends and family trickled in, asking if the flood had reached me.
“Thanks for checking in. I’m fine.”
I wasn’t always just fine though. There was a time when Paris took my breath away. I’d swing my fourth-storey French windows wide, inviting my gloomy lover in with open arms. I’d plant my bare feet on the railing and let my glass of cheap wine suffuse my body in the affectionate Autumn breeze.
I wandered, and these wanderings were often accentuated with moments of awe; crossing the river on the many ponts, I’d stop to spend a moment on the stone parapet, watching the boats sweep under me against the Notre Dame backdrop with the conviction that the world was in my hands.
These novelties had dimmed into the everyday, simply a presence I could look past.
Paris truly lived up to what Monet and Funny Face made her out to be – a city forever coated in a sepia tint of nostalgia, yet saturated with romantic possibility. From my window, the chorus of nervous traffic and people at lunchtime simmered up, reminding me, in Nick Carraway’s words, that I was within and without.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, was always ambivalent between being in the thick of drama and alienation. On the periphery of the new money class of Long Island’s East Egg, he had one foot in its extravagance and decadence, and one foot out.
From my window, I was in the grasp of the city yet still a voyeur to the phantasmagoria in front of me. I was Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur, who – in the wake of the bustling new 19th-century city of Paris – was both observer and observed, lost in the anonymity of the streets crowded by the new bourgeois class; as I meandered the crowds whether on the way to university, to the supermarché, or just to bask in the occasional sun, my carefully curated black and grey wardrobe enabled me to go undetected as an outsider.
The flâneur’s wanderous gaze also extended to the goods on display in the magasins de nouveauté. These arcades or covered walkways lined with shops were the product of the innovation of glass and iron. As the precursor to the departmental stores, the new window displays enabled the fetishistic gaze of window shopping.
From a transitory space, it became a place to dwell for the Parisian bourgeoisie. Today, it is once again used to transit, most often as a shortcut to get to the next street. Yet, as one emerges from the arcade into the unforgiving Paris wind, one is greeted by a greater transitory space – the road.
I live just off Boulevard Haussmann, named after Georges- Eugène Haussmann who carried out a massive urban renewal of Paris under Emperor Napoleon II, in the 19th century. The Haussmannisation of Paris turned it into what we know of her today – perfectly tapered, plaster-covered icons of architecture and markers of Parisian national identity.
Yet, Haussmann was known as the artiste démolisseur because his construction of Paris, whose image occupies the common imagination today, entailed the destruction of another Parisian identity. The process arguably dehumanised the character of the city then.
In a more benevolent light, his aim was to build a utopian metropolis influenced by the Enlightenment’s affinity for the natural sciences – the city was to be a body and the people its cells, in constant, unhindered manoeuvring, according to social critic Richard Sennett. Though as the heel of my Saint Laurent boot clicked on the ground, I heard the pavement echo with the hollow space where the past was buried.
My footsteps followed in the reverberation of those who have walked before me.
“The operation of walking, wandering, or ‘window shopping’, that is, the activity of passers-by, is transformed into points that draw a totalizing and reversible line on the map,” wrote French Jesuit and scholar Michel de Certeau. As we learnt when to correctly use “je suis” and “j’ai” in French class, I was walking according to the grammar of the spatial practices designed for this city.
The direction of my flâneurial gaze extended from the shiny ‘Made in Paris’ goods in the windows to the towering monuments around me. As I stood on one end of the Champs-Élysées and looked straight, my line of vision was arrested by the Arc de Triomphe. As I crossed the Pont des Arts, I could not but be struck by the magnificent imposition of the Bibliothèque Mazarine. And as I emerged from the Iéna metro station, my panorama was punctuated with the exclamation point of an Eiffel Tower. Paris sold herself to me.
‘Made in Paris’ had fashioned its elegance into the global imagination. Despite this knowledge, her aura still stirred a near-dormant love within. My knowledge of her constructedness stood side by side with an irrational affinity, that even as the spark of novel experience extinguished, as the layers came undone to make plain the logic of the mystery of Paris’ aura, I continued to love Paris.
I have undressed Paris as I do my lover, peeling back layer by performed layer to reveal the good, the bad, and the not so beautiful. Love is blind until you step back from the arms of your lover and look at them in full view:
The aged lady in a headscarf and crutch kneels with her forehead on the pavement and begs for money next to the majestic Opéra Garnier. She picks herself up quite effortlessly and walks off at 5pm every day. The young man in a puffy jacket and beanie squats outside a café on Avenue de l’Opéra and places his transparent coin cup slightly too far into the middle of the pavement. He waits for a passerby to accidentally kick it over so that he will be compensated out of guilt. The middle-aged streetwalkers in scarlet berets and matching lipstick loiter on the corners of my street behind the palatial Galeries Lafayette on Saturday nights, waiting for their lucky hour.
As I take my daily walk, I am no longer invigorated by the ‘beauty’ that my gaze is told to meet. Instead they fall on that which has been displaced by the ideal. The veil of perfection is lifted and the mist of the idea of Paris has cleared. Now, all I see is Paris.
Making the most of a place that is totally not your scene. The wonders of travel has kept wanderers wandering from the beginning of time. For many of us, we constantly seek more places to explore, more cuisines to feast on, more people to meet.
From the cobbled streets of Prague to the skyscrapers of New York, the plains of India to the jungles of Borneo, the vastness of our world leaves so much to see, to travel as far as we might dare to venture.
And then sometimes, your travel leads you to a place that’s more strange than it is satisfying, perhaps a little bland and not terribly exciting – a place like Doha, for example, where there’s hot, hot heat and the constant disconcerting feeling that you’re strolling around on a movie set, rather than an actual place that people call home.
So maybe wherever you’ve ended up isn’t really your scene, and while you’re not going to strike Instagram gold in every place you visit, every place you visit has something substantial you can take away from it. (Or, at the very least, another place to scratch off your travel map.) So venture boldly forth and turn a potential travel regret into another place you’ve at least tried to get to know.
DO LIKE THE LOCALS DO
While for the sake of this example we qualify a local as more of a long-term resident – not one person I spoke to in Doha was actually from there – the people who spend the most time in a city or a town know it best.
Even a city that lacks stunning scenery or a wild nightlife scene has its own charms, and to find them one only needs to follow the lead of the people who live there. This could be a hidden gem of a local museum, a particularly lovely after-work stroll, or the best hookah bar in town.
Tempting as it may be to suss out the hottest expat joints in town, you (presumably) might only be here once. Pass on the overpriced alcohol and walk the path of the average person instead, without holding high expectations for where it might lead, but for a new journey to be enjoyed as you go on your way.
“But I could be somewhere so much more exciting,” you find yourself thinking sullenly. “This is literally the worst place I’ve ever been to.” Keep calm, stop your sulking and travel on – a new place is a new place waiting to be explored, whether or not it ever makes your top ten list.
EMBRACE THE STRANGE
In the middle of Tirana, Albania, stands a pyramid. To say that it’s an eyesore doesn’t do its ugliness justice; it is the most monstrous building you can imagine. Built in 1988 and now unoccupied, unused and covered with poor graffiti and suspicious characters, it’s not a place anyone would want to spend an extended amount of time at. Still, there’s a story of a Stalin-loving communist leader and his daughter behind it, and it’s a story as strange as the building itself.
In the centre of Doha, countless shops are filled with birds. Falcons are tied to poles in one big Birds of Prey market and sold for your hunting needs. A bizarre sight for the uninitiated, but one that leaves a lasting impression.
Meanwhile in Skopje, Macedonia, garishly coloured building facades and overindulgent statues and fountains scream new wealth and tasteless spending. Walking around feels a bit like you’re exploring the mansions of a bored millionaire who has a thing for Vegas casinos.
Embrace it anyway – and trust that behind all the strangeness you may encounter, there are more stories to discover still, if you’re willing to seek them.
GET SOME TIME IN
Maybe there’s really nothing else to do. Maybe, try as you might, you can’t for the life of you figure out what one is meant to do for fun in these parts. You’ve wandered into a land of vast nothingness either in terms of sights, culture, activities or history you’d care to learn.
There’s one thing that’s entirely in your control, though, and that’s the combination of you and this dreadful place. Take this complete lack of life or luxury and use it to your advantage: Start writing your novel. Create the killer playlist you’ve already put together in your mind. Do some serious soul-searching. Have another existential crisis. Go for a long walk.
Do the things you always do, or want to do, and use the noticeable lack of desired distractions and the new setting you’re in to actually get some time for yourself in. No cool people to stumble into and hang out with? Even better – stay by your lonesome and (re)learn to enjoy your own company when there’s nothing to distract you from yourself.
LEARN SOMETHING NEW
If you’re a bit of a trivia geek, this could be an opportunity to shine one day in the unforeseeable future, as you dazzle with a surprising amount of information about an unlikely destination. You’ve got time and you are, and as we always are, surrounded by information that can be acquired. Learn quick facts about the capital, ask about the architecture, look into the literature and listen to the music of this place. Maybe you’ll find out something new about the place; maybe you’ll find out something new about yourself.
As you leave at last with all kinds of quick facts, a renewed sense of self, a new appreciation for the absurd and an insider’s tips on a shortcut or two through the city centre, you’ll know at least that your time was not spent in vain. And if ever your forlorn friends end up in these parts, you’ll be ready and waiting to see them through, with a hot take on the land that you have come to know, even if it’s a place that you’ll never quite understand.
How a burial ground can open one’s eyes to culture, history, and tradition. In Singapore, each ethnic group comes with its traditional customs and rituals.
Legend has it that placing chilli and onion under a tree or in pots of plant in four corners of a certain place could ward off rain –– a ritual that has its origins in Malay culture. Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong joked about it in an interview during the F1 Grand Prix in 2008.
With ethnic Chinese making up 74 per cent of Singapore’s population, Chinese superstitions pervade the country. Here’s a little backstory about the country’s $1 coin: The late Minister Lee Kuan Yew was a firm believer of Fengshui and consulted Venerable Hong, a respected Fengshui master, about the construction of the MRT in the mid-1980s. Venerable Hong warned that the construction, which cuts through downtown Singapore, will negatively affect the country and her people. He proposed that every household display a bagua, eight trigrams that represent the fundamental principles of reality in Taoist cosmology. Considering the fact that doing so would upset racial and religious sensitivities, it obviously wasn’t going to happen. The solution? Design the $1 coin in the shape of a bagua so that everyone would have no choice but to carry it around.
For a tiny island of 719.1 km², there sure are an alarmingly high number of allegedly haunted places. In Singapore, cemeteries are generally regarded as places full of bad juju. One can assume that every cemetery in the country is haunted. People only visit cemeteries when they want to pay respects to their deceased relatives on death anniversaries or during religious festivals such as the Hungry Ghost Month, or sweep the tombs during 清明节 (Qingming Festival). They perform rituals such as placing offerings of food on tombstones, burning “hell notes”, paper replicas of cars, mobile phones and other luxury items.
OVER MY DEAD BODY
I wouldn’t be caught dead walking through cemeteries in Singapore. Not in the day, and especially not at night. But in Europe, a casual daytime walk through a cemetery is as normal as a walk in the park. There aren’t any creepy vibes at all. In fact, it’s quite a tranquil experience.
I’ve walked through Pére-Lachaise in Paris on a gloomy rainy evening, in search of Oscar Wilde’s lipstick-covered tomb. Others flock to American rock legend Jim Morrison’s grave – the most visited one in the same cemetery. Readers of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir go to Montparnasse cemetery just to pay tribute.
On a recent trip to Barcelona, my Couchsurfing host José took me to Cementiri de Montjuic, the main cemetery of the city. Just a 15-minute walk from Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, the 57-acre cemetery sits on one of the rocky slopes of Montjuic hill. It contains more than 1 million burials and cremation ashes in 150,000 plots, niches and mausolea.
While superstitions and magical thinking have existed in Europe for centuries, most modern Europeans think nothing of them. Similarly, religion is unimportant in their day-to-day lives. The Catholic churches in Barcelona and other European cities I’ve been to remain largely empty, and are mostly there for historical and nostalgic purposes. Walk into a church on Sunday mass and you’ll only see the elderly in attendance. As a non-believer, that doesn’t bother me, but some religious young tourists would find that sad. The irony is that you’ll find more religious folks in Singapore than in Europe.
José wanted to show me the decorations on the tombstones and burial niches of gypsies who – if you want to be politically correct – are also known as Romani/Roma. He – a native Spaniard – wanted to show me part of Romani culture, and how this often discriminated minority ethnic group commemorates their deceased loved ones. While the Romani forms most of the underprivileged population in Europe, José says that they spend a lot of money decorating the burial plots of their relatives when they can afford to do so.
In this cemetery, the tombstones of the gypsies are very easy to spot as they are usually adorned with brightly coloured plastic flowers. Some burial plots are huge, and even have statues of the deceased standing by. José told me that most gypsies in Spain carry the last name Jiminez or Cortes.
We walked past a niche decorated with blue and white plastic flowers and I stopped to take a look. José commented that the man in the photo looked like a flamenco dancer. In my ignorance, I asked, “Are most flamenco dancers gypsies?” He responded with a “Yes!” He went on to tell me about Carmen Amaya, the greatest flamenco dancer of her generation. She was a gypsy. While flamenco originated in Andalusia in Southern Spain in the 17th century, the dance style has gradually been influenced by and associated with the Romani in Spain. That makes sense, considering that the Romani are known for being entertainers, with music and dance playing a huge part in their culture.
PUTTING THE ‘A’, ‘R’, ‘T’ IN ARCHITECTURE
As we continued on our walk, we reached a part of the cemetery where most of the mausolea are located. A few of them contained coffins of an entire family, stretching back generations. Some were at least 200 years old. Others were constructed like a mini chapel. One tombstone was accompanied by a classical Roman statue.
I got to see mausolea constructed in different architectural styles: Neo-gothic, neo-Egyptian, roman, and more. The neo-Egyptian one was particularly new to me; I was fascinated by the elaborate carvings on the door of the mausoleum.
Seeing these mausolea really drove home how small Singapore really is. Cemeteries in Singapore have been, and still continue to be exhumed to make way for roads, train stations and housing estates. Being a 54-year-old country, you’ll hardly see tombstones that are more than 200 years old, let alone mausolea in any cemetery. There is simply no space for them.
SIX FEET UNDER
Even though it wasn’t my first time walking through a cemetery, Montjuic Cemetery opened my eyes to the history, culture and architecture one can see on a burial ground. I began to wonder what I was missing out on in my own backyard.
Taking leisurely walks through cemeteries is unheard of in Singapore, but I found out about the guided walks on Bukit Brown cemetery. It’s a volunteer-run initiative which started recently in 2015 – in hopes of bringing awareness to the culture, heritage, and nature on site – after the historical cemetery was affected by a proposed road construction in 2013 as well as the construction of the Thomson-East Coast MRT line.
Perhaps I should cast my superstitious beliefs aside and go on one of the guided walks before it’s too late. It’s time for me to hear the stories of the dead on Bukit Brown cemetery before it inevitably gets consumed by the relentless urbanisation in Singapore.
What happens when you’ve travelled so often you’ve flown away the pre-travel jitters but you’ve also lost that brand new feeling of excitement?
Once upon a time, you’d stay up late at night before your flight.
Heart pounding, feet restless, mind racing, you’d pace your bedroom floor running through all the adventures you were about to embark on.
You’d run through every list of all the things you should bring twice: passport, journal, money that’d you’d changed at the best exchange rate you could find, addresses for sending postcards, a printed itinerary of all the sights you would soon behold and several copies of your passport.
The morning would come and with the sun, you’d rise after a sleepless night. No matter how hungry you might be, you could never sit still long enough to eat; the butterflies in your stomach too busy to allow space for food anyway. Every single time, you’d be like a child excitedly anticipating her first day at school, or a potential employee getting ready for an interview you knew you were going to ace.
What would you say? Who would you meet? Were you ready for the world and more importantly, was the world ready for you?
These pre-travel jitters might have come upon you the night before a well-planned vacation. They could well have made their first appearance weeks in advance. In fact, your countdown may have lasted longer than the trip itself. And even as you’d get set to leave, you were already pre-nostalgic for the adventure you haven’t even begun yet. The start of a trip tells you one thing for sure: it would also at some point have to end.
After all this excitement, how can one bear for it all to be over?
CHASING THAT FIRST HIGH
But now you’ve graduated. You sleep soundly before your flight, you eat right, bring appropriate snacks, wear the right shoes and you have all you need: passport, credit card, mobile phone, tablet or laptop, book or Kindle.
You’re cool. You’re all set. Anything you might have forgotten (which of course you haven’t, you wily traveller, you) can be quite easily acquired along the way.
Look at me now, you might think. I’m the coolest kid in world-traveller class. I do what I want, I travel light and I’m too cool to care about pre-planning. Remember when you used to save every boarding pass as a souvenir?
Still, part of you fondly remembers the forgotten days of anxious packing and triple checking. For the seasoned traveller, maybe you’re always chasing that first high. Experienced as you’ve become over the years, there’s something about the youthful naiveté of your early traveller’s life, remarkable in a way that never comes round again. You’ll never be as anxious; you’ll also never be as straight up excited.
You get so good at travelling you forget that first brand-new feeling of fun and the embracing of the unknown.
NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH
There can only be once that you see a staggering cliff for the first time, or cast your eyes over an especially blue ocean, or contemplate some of the world’s highest peaks. You only get one first time in the old town of a European city, one first time to attend a play in a historic theatre.
And eventually, the rush ebbs away. Stunning mountains are stunning mountains, and charming old streets are charming old streets. They don’t lose their wonders, but you sure can lose your virgin excitement.
Here’s something to remember: just because they aren’t new to you doesn’t make them worth any less of your attention. Like many things, it gets better over time.
With that brand-new feeling out of the way, you’re now free to go forth and experience all the details you missed with your eyes glazed over in joy. Now you can calmly and rationally take in all the sights you have surrounded yourself with. You’re done with the fun of casual dating. You’re ready for a long-term commitment to travel, and the joy in its familiarity and sameness.
You’re not dressing up for a fancy night out, you’re settling in for a long weekend of Netflix and chilling. It’s now time to sit down with a glass of wine and read a book in a new city instead of checking of top sights in your guidebook.
EMBRACE THE GOOD
So maybe you’ll never perceive the world through the fresh eyes of an inexperienced wanderer again, and there is surely some sadness due there. Gone are the days where you’re bouncing off the walls in anticipation of your next adventure, and maybe you miss how thrilled you were at the sight of stunning scenery and endless mountains or deserts. You have accepted that strange and new things are just a part of your life now. That’s just how it is.
Also absent are the days where you’re pre-sad about the end of your next adventure, and it is here that you can find your good place.
You’ve now swapped early-day excitement for a lifelong series of adventures. You know there’s no point getting sad about completed travels; the next trip is never far away. Perhaps you’ve found adventure in the everyday.
EMBRACE THE FAMILIAR
So now you’re trotting off into the world, looking at all the sights around you with seasoned eyes, more points of reference and a far greater appreciation for the finer details. You’re not fussed about doing all the things they say you can’t miss, from rooftop bars to Michelin stars – you’re just as happy wandering through a quiet street, checking out the local bakery, exploring an old museum or watching the people who call this place home.
Maybe first times are overrated; now you get to travel on at your own pace, in your own style, finding a quieter – and in my opinion better – kind of excitement that never fades away.
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