The Shape of Our City

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In this dream, I am a giant holding the shape of my city in the palm of my hand. Like a volcano, I must remain dormant, silent — lest the children of the land notice me. I don’t breathe, just watch with my twin vision of the macro and micro: a generation cross an intersection; a gardener cupping a red flower and bending down to inhale its sweet sickly fragrance; a sunrise as it blossoms from the ground up and reaches the top of things — a bank building, glowing metallic trees, the vault of the sky. Tenderness in the concrete.

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When I wake I will wonder why I didn’t see such beauty all along. In a second I will forget and become minute again. Yes?

Once, I was a giant.

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The past few weeks and all of today, I’ve been telling people how beautiful I find Singapore. I used to dislike it — detested everything, from the shiny Central Business District area to the HDB-riddled landscape, where the air was tense and greasy from one life forcibly rubbed against another and another and another.

Always inherently drawn to the romantic and the juvenile, skylines and spaces would form in my head as I read more and watched movies about foreign lands. I unwittingly started to create my own perfect city: beautiful gothic skyscrapers, the openness of the Santa Monica Pier, cobbled streets of some nameless European small town. In this frame I drew a ghost of a place, a bric-a-brac of stolen scenes, and when the time came for me to seek out this mystical city, I went. If I dreamt it, surely I could find it.

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But of course I couldn’t. Not in Paris, not in Stockholm, not in Sydney or London or San Francisco or Athens or Rome. No matter where I went and how beautiful things were — from the monumental to the footsore particular — all I saw was semblance after semblance of my painted city. Where was this? Where was that? Where was home?

A deep sense of dissatisfaction grew with the world.

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A strange thing started to happen. Each time I stepped off the plane at Changi Airport, a realisation grew steadily — that the shape of my city was never meant to be confined to the orderliness of a New York City grid or the curlicue of Parisian arrondissements; never the subject of a Commissioner’s Plan or Haussmann’s renovation.

As a young nation, we’re only just deciding what we’re supposed to look like. It took me a while to come to terms with that. Singapore was never meant to be romantic or orderly — it is what it is. A jumble of things. The feeling of beginning.

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“For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”
Hebrews 13:14

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Just like that, my eyes were open to the beauty of an ever-evolving landscape. Listen, structures and scenes change, but our call to the important things stays the same. The old bones of the city remain — prayer, worship, love, hope, wonder.

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I’d like to think that God really was the giant in my dream, holding Singapore in the gentle crest of his open palm as it shifts. In the verses of Psalms 139, King David talks about God forming his inward parts, knitting him together in his mother’s womb, intricately weaving him into the depths of the earth. In the same way, God is shaping the city as surely as he is shaping you, me, us.

Wonderful are your works; my soul knows very well.

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I feel it all now, the keen sense of home. I feel it when I am crossing the humble intersection between Hougang MRT station and my 5-room flat, and I feel it when I am in a cab hurtling down the East Coast Parkway and watching giant metallic flowers crown from the ground in a distance. Strange how this needle prick of a country can evoke mountains of emotion in a person.

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It all comes down to this moment. Sitting in the backseat of my friend’s car as she cruises down St. Andrew’s Road, framed by the lights of the National Gallery on our left and the pitch blackness of the Padang on the right, I sigh and say one more time: Gosh, Singapore is so beautiful.

Silence. No reply from either of my friends.

Of course we know this; we knew it all along. We sit quietly, watch the silver cross tchotchke dangle above the car dashboard, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…

 

Originally published on SELAH.
Photos by Marcus Goh & Zann Lee

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In Praise of Shadows

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For a while now it’s been coming. I am spent I am so many people I know I must leave right now but where to? Wherever my book bag can take me. To the sierras of Andalusia. To the blue-green islands on the Indian Ocean. To the Danube river, the Norwegian fjords, the Himalayan mountain ranges.  I’m on the upper deck of bus 80 as the colours of a thousand Tibetan flags fill my eyes. Damn its not easy to sit still with the feeling of “now” grinding at your temples. Don’t blink don’t move don’t blink don’t move don’t blink. Just you and the book in your lap. Familiarise yourself with the nomenclature and don’t let the sentence leave your eyeline.

Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.

As we cross the painted shophouses of Geylang the details open up I see it all suddenly the carved stone flowers the garish pink and green paint dirty and flaking and oh God it’s so beautiful and just like that the tears are streaming down onto the pages of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, the black ink lines spreading like blood from a bullet wound.

If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty…

An hour later I am at a table with friends having steak bagels and coffee, the thick, acidic ambrosia, a gift from God, surely. The only marks of the feelings past are the faint tear streaks I tried to rub away with the back of my hand but they don’t quite fade away enough. Do they know? I’m looking at life happening outside the glass windows and suddenly everything is alright I’m supposed to be right here within and without sipping a flat coke with a cockeyed beagle sitting at my feet. I’m right here but I was not made for here.

If I find in myself desires nothing in this world can satisfy,
I can only conclude that I was not made for here

It Is Done.

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This is my memory of mass from my twelve years of Catholic school.

We are in the main square, 400 girls categorised by the names of flowers and lined up in neat rows, the hot sun beating down on all of us. Me, with my forehead against my friend’s back, her uniform sticking to her skin. The saints are watching, their bronze faces shiny and unwavering as they peer over the bannister from above.

Father Benedict stands on the balcony, wrapped in white robes. He has a magnificent singing voice. I recall a story my Catholic friend once told me about the Pope addressing crowds from a window of his house every Wednesday in Vatican City. That was very nice of him since he seemed like a very busy man.

10, 20, 30 minutes. My ears prick up at my favourite part, at what I think is the most beautiful melody of the entire mass. Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, almighty Father, forever and ever…

Soon, it will be time for communion. My Catholic friends will sleep right up till Father Benedict asks them to rise. They will march down the aisle, stretch up their arms as if begging for alms, take the wafer and make the sign of the cross. We crane our necks to see them saunter back to their designated spots. Later on, they will cross the road and smoke cigarettes near the dumpster at Block 96. I once asked my best friend Sarah Anne what the “broken body of Jesus” tasted like and she just shrugged and said: like cardboard. I was not expecting that at all.

It’s almost noon. A spot of my perspiration falls onto the asphalt tile, forming a dark spot before seeping and disappearing into its bleeding redness. The blood of the lamb…

 

This is how mass was like last Tuesday.

We step into church at five minutes to six, wet from the sudden torrent of rain. The weather has been bipolar lately, much like the day that has just passed, made up of a string of good and distressing news. I don’t know what I’m doing here, except that I felt a strange, involuntary stirring in my spirit when Mitchell told me that she was going for mass and before I knew it, I hear myself asking if I could come too. So here we are, at the 6pm weekday mass at the Church of St. Bernadette.

We try not to drip too much as we sit down. I look around at the half-empty pews, arranged in a semi circle around a curved, marble platform. We are the youngest people here, children exempted. Before I have time to contemplate what that means, a soothing, female voice chimes through the speakers, informing us in crystal clear tones that mass is starting. Soon, a priest and two altar boys emerge from the inner folds of the sanctuary.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Up, down, and then up again. I sit down a tad too late or say the lines stiltedly. I wonder if people can tell that I’m not Catholic. Mitch tries to help me along but things are moving too quickly and besides, I don’t mind just following.

May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.

Amen.

The words come in dribs and drabs but it’s amazing how much I remember considering how many years its been. The Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, the Doxology. Dormant but alive, they have left indelible marks on my memory. The sensations – the weight of the hymnal resting on my palm, the feel of the leather against my knees as I kneel to pray, the murmuring of the congregation – are ones that I am accustomed to. The order of it all is comforting, bittersweet.

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give Him thanks and praise. 

I know what’s coming up next: communion. Mitch asks me if I would like to go up but I shake my head, sit back down and close my eyes. I am back at St Anthony’s Canossian again, eleven-year-old me, with pigtails and in a pinafore two sizes too big. Somehow it is hard to reconcile that image with the person that I have become. God, where can I find you in all of this? I imagine a thin wafer dissolving on my tongue, absolving me of all my sins.

Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. 

Say the word. As people shuffle around me to receive communion, I realise that I’m blinking back tears. I’m reminded of that e.e. cummings poem that I love so much – it is so long since my heart has been with yours – and I nearly keel over from the feeling of familiarity, the feeling of being well-acquainted with the one who knows my heart the best.

Say the word and my soul shall be healed. 

Say the word.

Say.

Repave – 2017, In Review

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Inside the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Paris, March 2017.

Time is relentless
it casts long, tremulous shadows
& we, we are always in transit
fleeting & flitting
between light & dark & translucence 
always fickle
always whisked away by loftiness
by that crumbling feeling
or the lift away.
We don’t study the minute details
but we take in beauty in spoonfuls, gallons…
What ephemeral creatures we are.
We must tread lightly on this earth.

Time is indeed relentless. Each calendar year folds us in without our volition, without countdowns or resolutions, without eyes squeezed shut at a wish being prayed in the middle of a street glistening with rain, praying for better, for more, for an expanse of white happiness to spread into the hours & days & months that will trudge on. When do we stand still long enough to let our souls catch up with our bodies that are always going places? When do we repave?

Rely, rely, rely, rely
Behave, behave, behave, behave
(spent all of that time not wanting to…)
Decide, decide, decide, decide
Repave, repave, repave, repave
(spent all of that time not wanting to…)

Alaskans – Volcano Choir

Now’s as good a time as any. Here are some highlights – with lots of pictures, because sometimes words just don’t do enough justice.


Swansea / Hay-on-Wye/ Cardiff / Paris / Berlin / London.

Six places in five weeks. A pilgrimage like none other.

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Bible school & moody coastlines.
The world’s first national book town.
A harrowing experience.
Wordlessness in my soul city.
Contemplation in the concrete.
Lightheartedness & the going home.


New Beginnings.

& yet all of that didn’t mean I had any real answers to the biggest question… What next? It’s not easy picking up the pieces when what you thought you would be doing your own life suddenly grinds to a halt. Coming back home, I prayed hard & knuckled down, steeling myself for a lengthy, vigorous search.

Turns out I didn’t have to. I went for an interview for a job that I don’t think I was even qualified for, got an offer a few hours after, & started at a new workplace two weeks later. & while the first few months were incredibly tough (still is, most days), I cut my teeth at whatever task I was given & tried to positively impact the people I was surrounded with. Ministry in the marketplace. & while I’m still making mistakes & learning fast & furious on the job, I’m more convinced than ever that this is where God has placed me in this season.

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Four people with two Beatles songs between us, all in a illicitly-booked meeting room.

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ASLB Halloween – where we all drew names & came dressed as each other. One of my favourite workdays of the year.
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Of course, there’s the real Halloween, where the true nightmare is the client who gives you sleepless nights & sore eyes. 
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Getting coffee. Anywhere. Always. 


Church.

Another huge curveball was ministry. What was supposed to be a year of rest turned into a year of shock, struggle, & anger. This came with the painful leaving of many lifelong friends as well – planned or unplanned.

But finally, things came to a head & all the shock & struggle & anger turned into an acceptance of new responsibility, of new calling. Where did it come from? I suppose from the realisation that what mattered at the end of the day was the people & knowing how precious each of them were to God.

Break my heart for what breaks yours
Everything I am for your kingdom’s cause

Even though I could walk away from a ministry, there was no way I could walk away from its people. I will serve the church – my church – with as much strength as I have & for however long God grants me the grace to.

Ministry is such a joy, anyway. Like when I got to see three new people from my lifenet get baptised:

Incredible.

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The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
    you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

Psalm 16:5 – 6 (ESV)


My Dinner with André.

For the longest time, I dreamt about eating food like this. I spent hours poring over Lucky Peach & Bon Appétit magazines, devouring the column inches & holding the glossy images close to my nose. People who know me know how much food means to me (somewhere between the extremes of gluttony & gastronomy, I hope). I read about restaurants like The French Laundry, Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, Noma, El Bulli, Fäviken, D.O.M., Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Atelier Crenn & André. André. I never thought I would be able to eat at one of them. Last year, I finally did.

29 courses. 16 glasses of champagne & wine. 5 hours. A dizzy night full of curiosity & surprises. A night redolent with memory.


… & speaking of good food.

In 2017, I ate…

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& ate…

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& ate some more…

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& so the pattern continues on, well into 2018.

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Yay!


Concerts / Festivals / Exhibitions

Totally blew my entertainment budget but loved every single minute spent at a gig or museum.

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Lucy Rose. A beautiful set & documentary showing held in an old-fashioned theatre (The Projector). No frills, all heart.
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The wonderful, inimitable Leslie Feist at the Esplanade Theatre playing most of her latest album – Pleasure – & a few classics, of course.
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HONNE at the Esplanade Annexe Studio. A night of groovy, “baby-making” music. One more off the bucket list.
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Singapore Design Film Festival. Interesting set of films at a nostalgic venue.

Singapore Writer’s Festival. Highlights included getting to meet my ex- creative writing professor Jennifer Crawford, the teacher who impacted me most in my university days & whose double-book release we celebrated together, attending a Simon Armitage poetry reading session & taking a picture with him after (sublime, & then not so much), & all-in-all, remembering how far Singapore has come in the literary world – how after decades, poetry is a luxury that we can finally afford.

Century of Light – An exhibition of impressionist works curated by the National Gallery. So happy to have gotten a taste of the Musée d’Orsay in the most beautiful museum in Singapore.


& last but not least… the little creative things I managed to accomplish last year.

Because I’ve already written so much about the importance of creating, I won’t go into another spiel. It’s been an incredible year with a few sparks of inspiration. All glory to God, my creator. Among all the little essays & poems & sketches, here are a few of the bigger milestones.

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Dream, Memory, Life – a collection of travel essays proudly brought to you by the Hougang Literary Society. We printed 100 copies & sold them at our church’s Christmas fest to raise funds. This little book took most nights for three months (publishing is hard, guys) but it was worth it because we raised over a thousand dollars for missionary work in Kyrgyzstan!

An accompanying photo exhibition – another fund-raising effort, made possible mostly because of my talented photographer friend Faith. Loved how much effort was put into this & how so many people supported this artistic endeavour. To think that our photos of doors & elephants & trees & all the other little things we found beautiful are having in people’s homes, right now.

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Another fun photoshoot that I did for a client. Was pretty stressed about it, but thank God it turned out okay!

A second little gig – opening for Jean Tan, one of my favourite local songwriters & friend, who officially released her Hideaway EP that night. It was a three-song set but as usual, it’s daunting to be in the presence of such great talent. But this gig did force me to write a song that I ended up spontaneously singing with Jawn Chan that night. Such a magical moment to sing a line & hear a roomful of people chiming in after, singing back to me – I am a writer, I am gone / tell me your story, oh come to me…

 


Storytelling. That’s what 2017 was about. Come to think of it, it’s been a year spent repaving, a restoration of joy in the search of all things beautiful.

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

 

(Gerald Manley Hopkins, 1884 – 1889)

 

& 2018?

Therein lies cities to be traveled. Lines waiting to be written. A hundred things to be made with one’s hands, conversations to be had, love to be lost & then won again. Newness in a page turning. Hello, hello. 

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If You Tell

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“How stationary life has become, & the hours impossibly elongated… & in the end all that we can do is to sit at the table over which our hands cross, listening to tunes from the Wurlitzer, with love huge & simple between us, & nothing more to be said.”

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down & Wept – Elizabeth Smart


These days, I’m finding it quite difficult to get into the right space to write. It is near impossible to write well when one does not have time to read, time to sit in the nook of comfort & silence & soak in time, sublime. Now that the end of the year is approaching, I look back at the resolutions I made at the beginning of 2017 & as usual, feel despondent at how many I’ve let slip between my fingers. Write three new songs. Read at least 20 books. Learn to sketch properly. Take better photographs.

These unmet resolutions far outweigh those I’ve managed to complete. It’s a little disappointing. For some reason, being creative has always been extremely important to me; an act of worship unto God, like how someone else would connect by singing a praise song or reading the bible. It’s just the way I’m wired & without the luxury of time, I end up being restless, uneasy, frustrated, which is why this year feels so long & so challenging.

At work, I’m surrounded by the most passionate, driven & highest-functioning people that I’ve ever met, which are basic traits since we work in a competitive industry with near impossible deadlines. I love my work & the people I do it with but it’s no doubt that the nature of the job is changing the way & speed at which I process things, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Sure, one might become more efficient but there’s a great cost. Even after I clock off, I leave the workplace with my mind still ticking, ruminating on a deadline to meet, a schedule to plan, the next task to check off on a very long list of things to do, up till the time I fall asleep. Sometimes, work even invades my dreams. Every minute where I do slow down seems like a minute wasted. It is as if this increased efficiency has robbed me of my ability to look at the world with wonder. Some days, I just exist.

It’s worrying what can happen when you let your sense of awe slip away. Creativity, or rather, the want to create, comes first from wonderment at a world that is filled with beautiful things, created by a beautiful being. & because we are made in His likeness, we then seek to create similar things of loveliness, things that help us interrogate & reinforce truth, celebrate momentous and minute events, encapsulate the feelings that ebb beneath our very skin.

Have you ever seen the wonder
In the air of second life
Having come out of the waters
With the old one left behind
If you have so say

I see the world in light
I see the world in wonder
I see the world in life
Bursting in living colour
I see the world Your way
And I’m walking in the light

(Wonder – Hillsong United)

A wise friend of mine once said that we each have our own “non-negotiables” & it’s up to us to figure out what they are & how to protect them. It took me a long time to recognise that being creative was my non-negotiable & an even longer time to realise that it wasn’t secondary to other people’s, whether their’s might seem more noble (taking care of family, doing church work) or more socially-appropriate (having a relationship or an active social life). For me, being creative equates to basic self-care, the bare bones of your humanity. & time should be carved out for the things that make you human, no?

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I feel like it’s been such a long time since I’ve written something good, but as the year draws to a close, I feel like it doesn’t really matter as long as I try. Begin again, as they say. So I’m starting with lists to rekindle a sense of wonder, to remind myself that things of beauty do exist, if only you’d look hard enough.

An apricot danish, warmed in the oven for thirty seconds, the fruit cradled in a little bubbling pool of custard, puff pastry & a ring of icing sugar.

Hearing a French accent in the middle of the day, soft & delicious, jolting me back to streets of a certain city.

The company of a friend, two coffee cups between us & unabashed laughter at a shared memory.

A church spire extending above a green horizon of trees, its tip like an arrow, pointing to answers in the blinding sky.

A solitary bus ride with my mind pleasantly blank – oh, it has been so long – marvelling at a huge life shared with the rest of the universe, who leans in & says: Darling, I’m listening if you tell…

Aren’t We Made To Be Crowded Together, Like Leaves?

Light ended the night, but the song remained
And I was hiding by the stair
Half here, half there, past the lashing rain
And as the sky would petal white
Old innocent lies came to mind
As we stood, congregated, at the firing line

Night ended the fight, but the song remained
And so I headed to the wall
Turned tail to call to the new domain
As if in the sight of sea, you’re suddenly free
But it’s all the same…
Oh, but I can hear you, loud in the center
Aren’t we made to be crowded together, like leaves?


On 16th June 2017, Fleet Foxes released Crack-Up, their first full-length album in six years. I have just finished listening to it in its entirely in my bedroom, under the covers & with the lights off, & I am flush with feeling & memory. Music has such a powerful transportive ability; it can take you anywhere, anyplace, if you let it.

Listening to Third of May / Ōdaigahara brought me back to almost a decade ago when I wandered into HMV at City Hall & was drawn to this slim, paper sleeve with the most intriguing cover – a composite of two strange images, gothic yet modern, speckled with neon spots of colour & the notion of motion, like a technicolour medieval film framed within a 5″ square. I was reeled in even by their name, the “f” consonants light & fleeing on my tongue. I imagined their songs would feel like smoke, slipping seamlessly out of a room & back in again. I bought the five-song EP on a whim, not knowing how much this record was going to change me & how I related to music. I was only fifteen years old.

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I remember listening to Mykonos for the very first time, not unlike how I just listened to Crack-Up, plugged in & with my eyes squeezed shut in the dark, & even though I had not been to the tiny Greek island (I still have not, but I am hopeful), I felt all at once wrecked & known. I thought, perhaps if I could write a song like that someday that could make someone feel so intensely (like how Mykonos was for me), all that time spent saturated in music – all the hours & days of intent listening & furious writing & practicing the guitar – would not have been wasted… No, they wouldn’t have been wasted at all.

And you will go to Mykonos
With a vision of a gentle coast
And a sun to maybe dissipate
Shadows of the mess you made

I didn’t know much about folk music then, but Fleet Foxes made me feel like it was okay to be into the folk music that I did know about – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills & Nash – & not feel so ridiculously old-fashioned about the music I was dreaming about making one day. If you are a curious person, music is like an infinite series of rooms waiting to be discovered – genres & artistes cascading into another – & Fleet Foxes was my backdoor to modern folk acts like Bon Iver & Laura Marling & Feist. I learnt how to harmonise by singing along to White Winter Hymnal, how to finger-pick by practicing with Ragged Wood, & about the intricacies of arrangement by listening to Grown Ocean & Helplessness Blues. I listened to Quiet Houses when I was becoming somewhat disillusioned with the Junior College literature syllabus & marveled at how poetry could be derived from six words, sung over & over in majestic crescendos:

Lay me down…
Darkening…
Come to me…

Nearly ten years later & having a little experience in music-making, I still find myself crying whenever Oliver James comes on, & I inevitably wander back to my shelves again to pick through the weathered record covers. In Sun Giant, the only thing you’ll find in the sleeve besides sparse album credits & the CD itself is a lengthy note jokingly credited to Thomas Jefferson but actually written by Fleet Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold. It is essentially a long preamble about the magic of music but it holds so much truth & remains relevant to my existence till this day. I don’t know if Pecknold is a religious man, but this piece of writing speaks to me deeply about my faith & I suppose to a greater extent, the expression of that very faith – worship. The music of Fleet Foxes has inadvertently taught me how to host my sense of wonder well, & along with it, whatever gifts God has chosen to bless me with.

Here are portions of that note:

Sometimes when driving, or riding the bus, or walking around some park, I will try to get an image in my head of what the land around me would have looked like 400 years ago. The same hills, the same landscape, but in my mind I’ll cover it with nothing & wonder what it was like to be the first man to chance upon it. This is always useless to me. There is so much wonder in this world, but I always have trouble getting past our influence, our disasters & clumsy systems. & even in those places where there is some real beauty, like down at Golden Gardens or on the Olympic Peninsula, or in my grandparents’ cabin in Wenatchee when it’s deep in snowdrifts, all I have to do is take one look at the skyline in the distance, or the cement path I’m walking on, or the white car parked in the gravel driveway to take me out of the tenuous illusion & put me back in reality.

We are constantly tethered to some safety line. There is always a lantern, or a map, or a screen, or a cell phone. These things guarantee that whatever experience we’re having is just an attempt at connecting to something foreign & old, that it’s not real, no matter how real it looks. We’ve sketched out a new world over the old & they are in two separate universes. The old is lost despite the remnants of the everyday. If properly prepared, one could live entire decades indoors, in a world of their own creation.

A very smart & gifted friend of mine told me once that music is a kind of replacement for the natural world that, before civilisation or whatever, the world must have seemed a place of such immense wonder & confusion, so terrifying in a way, unthinkably massive & majestic. & that feeling of mystery & amazement, is somehow hardwired into us. Once the world became commonplace, mapped, & conquered, that mystery left our common mind & we needed something to replace it with & then came along music. I think she’s right, music is magic to me, transportive & full of wonder in a way that I have trouble getting from the natural world. All the human things that make the natural world so hard to connect with just aren’t there with music… Music to me is just as awe-inspiring as the world maybe once was, & I just love it a lot.”

Another one, & a lasting favourite.

In that dream I’m as old as the mountains
Still is starlight reflected in fountains
Children grown on the edge of the ocean
Kept like jewelry kept with devotion
In that dream moving slow through the morning

Wide-eyed walker, don’t betray me
I will wake one day, don’t delay me
Wide-eyed leaver, always going…

Why Paris?

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View of the Institut de France from the Museé du Louvre

I saw Paris first through lenses, like everyone else.

The first lens was that of literature. In my little library at home, I have arranged my books in the following sections: Contemporary Fiction, Classic Works, Food & Cookery, Music & Movies, Poetry & Plays, & finally… “Books about Paris”. There, you will find Wilde’s Down & Out in Paris & London, Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Sartre’s L’âge de raison, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Stein’s Paris, France, Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil & perhaps the most definitive novel in my education on Paris, Adam Gopnik’s From Paris to the Moon (sublime, alluring, swelling with fervour & acute observations on the quotidian… but more on that later). That Paris as a subject should merit an entire shelf by itself may be astonishing, but wait – let me explain this peculiar obsession.

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Shakespeare & Company

I read about Paris first in the children’s classic When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr which chronicled the growth of Anna, a young Jewish girl living in Berlin during the Second World War. The story follows her journey across several countries with the rest of her family – Papa, Mama & her older brother Max – as they leave Germany for Switzerland & then France to escape the Nazis. In the book, Papa is a francophile & loves Paris with all his heart, & after the first few days of being in their new home country, he takes everyone out to explore the city & they somehow end up at the top of the Arc de Triomphe. There is a moment where Anna is rendered speechless at the sight before her – the roads glittering with lights, the dim shapes of domes & spires & the twinkling Eiffel tower in the distance – & she turns to Papa in wonderment, who can only stare off in a daze & say breathlessly: Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it a beautiful city?

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The Arc de Triomphe

I saw Paris through the eyes of a child, heard the sounds of Anna playing with her friends in the école communale, smelt the whiffs of freshly made coffee from the market boulangerie. The words of the book painted scenes that seemed so distant & strange for a young girl who had grown up in a tropical island her whole life, whose experience with coffee was limited to her father’s daily “kopi-c” – hot & sprung up, held, in a little plastic bag. Like Anna, herself so foreign & yet so immediately enamoured by the French capital, I could feel my mind expanding, dreaming, pushing against the boundaries of that stretched plastic to taste a faraway place where children drank espresso in the mornings & sipped wine diluted with sparkling water at night, where they sampled snails & onion soup for supper on the fourteenth of July & danced with their parents by the left bank till dawn. This was my introduction to the city, as were most other things – through literature.

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Then I saw Paris through my second lens – that of film. As a young teenager, I was (still am) besotted by Audrey Hepburn, & besides wanting to be Holly Golightly walking down Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, in her little black dress with a flaky pastry in hand, I watched her in Charade, How to Steal A Million & Funny Face with Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole & Fred Astaire respectively, hand-in-hand with her leading men & clad in Givenchy, finally in a city that seemed worthy of her beauty, something New York City never quite managed to be. I watched Moulin Rouge & Amelie, saw their characters bring colour to an already flamboyant Montmartre, the 18th arrondissement full of night time light & sin. Paris, I believe, is the city most fondly remembered & distinctly portrayed in old cinema, matched only by its equally romantic sister city Rome (Only Paris is worthy of Rome; only Rome is worthy of Paris, the famous saying goes).

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Hôtel de Ville
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Saint-Chapelle

& then there was the last lens, a collection of the more secondary images of the eternal city – the photographs, the stories from first-hand travellers, the music of Edith Piaf & Pink Martini. There is a picture taken by the famous photographer Robert Doisneau that is seared into my memory forever though I can’t recall where I saw it first. It was something that I unconsciously held to my chest as representative of the atmosphere of Paris until the day I finally went.

In this photograph, one can make out the famous Hôtel de Ville in the background, faint but magnificent, which means that this picture was taken right on Rue de Rivoli from a café during rush hour. Everybody in the picture is well-dressed – pea coats & trilbies & silk scarves – on their way to wherever they are going, & right in the thick of it, there is a pair of lovers kissing tenderly yet intensely, the lady beautiful in her fitting sweater & her head thrown back, & the gentleman (which has come to represent all French men for me, unfair as that may be) with his thick waves of hair askew, his arm forming a perfect nook for the lady to lean into. This struck me immensely, that Paris seemed to be a city where one could be right in the middle of this sprawling metropolis, the premier city of the old world, but still be completely abandoned to passion & romance whenever the situation presented itself. Could I one day have that too: structure & spontaneity?

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“The Kiss” – Robert Doisneau, 1950

You can imagine how these three lenses made my idea of Paris swell to disproportionate sizes. My Paris before I knew Paris was pink & pretty & artistic. I always let sentiment get the better of me (the forlorn poems & endless daydreams speak for themselves) & this is often to my detriment especially when I travel. In From Paris to the Moon, Gopnik encapsulates it perfectly in these sentences:

“There are two kinds of travelers. There is the kind who goes to see what there is to see & sees it, & the kind who has an image in his head & goes out to accomplish it. The first visitor has an easier time, but I think the second visitor sees more. He is constantly comparing what he sees to what he wants, so he sees with his mind, & maybe even with his heart, or tries to.”

I knew before I went to Paris that it would be difficult because I was the said second visitor, rich in expectation, laden with the lenses & the distorted views that they had produced all my life. So when I came to the city for the first time in 2011, I was full of trepidation. It was then when I would be confronted with the truth, see for myself if I would truly love Paris now that I was right there, or if I had only loved the idea of it. I was only eighteen then & my friends & I were backpacking around Europe & had just finished our stint in Rome. As we finally rode into Paris on the ten o’ clock Orlybus, I knew that I couldn’t be wrong about my assumptions because there was a distinct click between the images in my mind & what I saw before my eyes. I felt like I was dreaming for something like five consecutive days. It is a city that inspires words, poems, songs; it flows out of you, like the waters of the Seine.

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Champs-Élyseés on a Sunday afternoon

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Days like these
when things don’t matter
when you don’t matter
when
I only want the smell of rain

of cities & streets
& eyes dreary with sleep
indelible & sublime
swallowed dappled light &
leapt in air, soared

& curled up in love & silk scarves
This is where I belong
in liquid sound
I am going heady with grey
douse me in flowers & sweet tea

(Rue, 2013)

I returned to Paris two years after that, & again in March this year. Paris was the same, no matter how much it had changed. It still elicits the same emotions, perhaps only more intensely each time. In between all these sojourns, I have learnt what it means to truly love a city for all that it is, all the pretty parts but all the ugly, raggedy bits too. Images & nostalgia are all well & good, but you cannot say that you love Paris if you do not know its pain keenly, if you have not seen the gypsies who inhabit the street corners, wearing everything they own, their eyes hungry & searching, or the dark-skinned immigrants selling their wares outside the Louvre with a sense of intimidating urgency, who have come from very far away because they, just like you, believed that Paris was a city of magic, of hope. You must love every dirty cobblestone, every dinghy backstreet, every overcrowded café you dine at, rubbing shoulders with a stranger, your nose itching from the unceasing cigarette smoke. You must not complain at the offhanded Parisien service at the brasserie or at the rising prices of croissants because after all, this is the Paris you fell in love with, & love means to accept something completely.

Time is relentless
it casts long, tremulous shadows
& we, we are always in transit
fleeting & flitting
between light & dark & translucence
always fickle
always whisked away by loftiness
by that crumbling feeling
or the lift away.
We don’t study the minute details
but we take in beauty in spoonfuls, gallons…
What ephemeral creatures we are.
We must tread lightly on this earth.

(2017)

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The Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre
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Lunch at Benoit – cheese & black pepper puffs, offal salad & champagne
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A café in Montmartre

So there it is, my elaborate answer to the question, Why Paris? – because I love it wholly, the same, through the lenses & without. Nowadays, whenever I read a novel, I can’t help but think of the legion of lost generation writers (Hemingway, Joyce, Stein, Eliot, Fitzgerald) who graced the grounds of Les Deux MagotsCafé de Flore in 1920s Paris, who did not know yet that they were one day going to write books about the eternal city – they simply lived. Nowadays, I never stand in the middle of a museum & not see the marble arcs and gold-glided ceilings of the Louvre at the corner of my eye (I still expect the Winged Victory of Samothrace to appear right before me, her pose dauntless & her well-chiselled shoulders carrying the weight of centuries). I see the Tuileries in every garden, the Seine in every river, Shakespeare & Company in every bookshop.

I cannot help it. Because of these innumerable, tiny pinpricks on my psyche, I sometimes dream a million dreams in a span of a day. Edith Piaf knew what she was talking about when she sang that famous tune, seeing life coloured in a rose tint, full of spirit & song. Quand il me prend dans ses bras / Il me parle tout bas / Je vois la vie en rose… Six years on, like that black & white photograph, so do I, or so I would like to believe. Because of Paris, I now see the world through a different lens – Paris itself.

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