—For Julz Booth-Jones
Truman Capote, author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, described his diary as a ‘hieroglyphic shambles’. He said that when looking back over his old journals he was frequently baffled by entries of which he had no recollection. ‘God knows what “Thunder on Cobra Street” refers to,’ he pondered. I, too, came across many jottings in my diaries that left me wondering what on earth I was on about.
In addition to these cryptic scribbles, I noticed that I am also quite an avid list maker, though not nearly as obsessive as Susan Sontag, renowned for her exhaustive lists of, well, everything. For example: “Things I like: fires, Venice, tequila, sunsets, babies, silent films, heights, coarse salt, top hats, large long-haired dogs, ship models, cinnamon, goose down quilts, pocket watches, the smell of newly-mown grass, linen, Bach, Louis XIII furniture, sushi, microscopes, large rooms, ups, boots, drinking water, maple sugar candy.”1
Following my last Writer’s Block piece, here are some more of my journal entries and accompanying photos, covering the period of my last few weeks in France and my relocation to Vietnam. Once again, I must mention that I took the liberty to change names and details where necessary. And by necessary I mean wherever the hell I felt like it.
Paris. Dec 11th 2016.
Tonight the rain had teeth. Tonight the sky snarled with fangs of ice over Paris. I tried to capture the intensity of the gushing, slushy snow on my shitty camera as I ran back to the hostel after the concert. Almost fell on my face. It was dirty snow, snow cut with sleet. Street snow. Mean, sharp ice parading itself as snow. A wolf in sheep’s clothes. A scarecrow hidden in a snowman.
Then I lay in my cozy dorm bed and read the Selected Poems of Sylvia Plath while outside the window, in the 3 a.m. winter night, Paris dissolved in a downpour of snow and sleet, darkness and city lights. Dark mingling with streetlights and running down the window pane in splashes of traffic-light-red and green and yellow against the black night.
Of people the air only
Remembers a few odd syllables.
It rehearses them moaningly:
Black stone, black stone.
Paris. December 12th 2016.
Some cool words I recently stumbled upon (or stumbled over):
Paris. Dec 16th 2016.
More cool words:
Paris. Dec 17th 2016.
Some books I love:
The Common Reader – Virginia Woolf
The Lichtenburg Figures – Ben Lerner
Why I Write – George Orwell
Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
Covert Joy – Clarice Lispector
Against Interpretation – Susan Sontag
The Boat – Nam Le
Guns, Germs & Steel – Jared Diamond
Summertime – J. M. Coetzee
Out of Sheer Rage – Geoff Dyer
Application for Release from the Dream – Tony Hoagland
Charles de Gaulle Airport. March 14th 2017.
All checked in & ready to board.
Moving to Vietnam today. Why do I crave this feeling of reinvention, this wild thrill of ripping my life out by the roots and replanting myself in unknown soil? Am I trying to run away from myself? Or am I chasing after some elusive, romanticized ideal life? Sometimes I think the two directions are really one. But I’ve found that whatever my motivations are, new adventures lead to new lessons and new perspectives.
This desire to chase the horizon has crept back into my blood in the last few months. But I wasn’t sure when I’d actually leave France. And then suddenly, about two weeks ago, it all came together. I finally finished my English teaching course and I have decided to head to Ho Chi Minh City a.k.a. Saigon, in Vietnam, and become an English teacher.
The last few days were a blur of red wine, inefficient packing and boozy goodbyes. Mathieu, Rachel, Andy, Amy, Ruben, Jughel, Seb, Sandra and so many others made the last few months at the chateau feel like home.
My bag of books weighs 21.4 kg. The mannequin-faced French man behind the check-in counter scowled at me from behind immaculate black eyebrows when I pleaded with him not to charge me extra. He had about 21.4 kgs of gel in his hair but sure, I’m the unreasonable one.
Flight boarding in 30 minutes.
Goodbye France, goodbye Europe. Don’t know when I’ll be back.
Saigon, Vietnam. March 21st 2017.
Saigon is a big, swirling mess of smog and noise and construction and commerce and motorbikes and fumes and people, people, people. Considering the bloody and tragic history of Vietnam, I am astounded by the Saigonese locals’ peaceful acceptance of the vast hordes of expats.
I live in District Two, in a neighborhood called Tao Dien, which contains a lively mix of expatriates from all over the world and many Vietnamese people, both rich and poor (there aren’t many middle-class Vietnamese, at least not in the Western sense, or so it seems to my admittedly ignorant eyes). Tao Dien is a ramshackle area of colonial-style mansions, enormous modern apartment towers, thrumming commercial streets, and a maze of cramped alleys where the many poor families live in tiny apartments often containing three generations. And the big slimy Mekong River slithers past Tao Dien. It gleams sickly green in the fierce sun, sometimes coughing its humid, stinking breath over the neighborhood and into the nostrils of rich and poor alike.
I live in Villa 77, Street 19, Thao Dien. It’s a spacious, if garish, French-style villa that must once have been a gigantic, opulent, individual home. Now it is subdivided into separate apartments. There’s a large, rectangular swimming pool that is mostly pretty murky. The landlord, Nguyen, drains and refills the whole thing roughly once a month. And then leaves it alone until the sparkling blue turns the colour of cloudy apple juice again.
There is a grungy, smelly, paved area adjacent to the pool where some rusty, broken gym equipment lays withered and forgotten.
The other communal areas of the villa are vast and soulless: large, dimly lit hallways with sticky faux-leather lounge suites orbiting grimy coffee tables. These are only ever used, it seems, as final resting places for empty polystyrene takeaway boxes and beer cans on Saturday nights. The common spaces are too hot and humid to hang out in anyway. Only the individual apartments are air-conditioned.
Who else lives in the villa? There’s an incredibly wrinkled old French woman who chain-smokes all day on her balcony with her young Vietnamese boyfriend. Once or twice a day, he zooms out on his rattling scooter to buy takeout meals for the two of them. Their favourite dish appears to be Banh Mi with a side of Thit Nuong.
There’s a Russian woman of about 30 who lives with her little blonde son. He seems to have a complicated relationship with the two gangly cats that live in the villa. I once saw him bash the ginger cat over the head with his batman figurine, and then declare, with a thick Russian accent, “I love you, little gat. And you love me, little gat.” The little gat had by then fled the scene in fury.
Then there are the Vietnamese landlords, a husband and wife: the thin, sinewy, shy Nguyen and the exuberant, commanding Sue. They have two adult daughters who rarely visit. Nguyen may drain and refill the swimming pool, but Sue is the one in charge. She runs the whole operation. On Monday mornings she can be seen in her ground floor office giving him orders for about two solid hours: long lists of repairs to be done, errands to run, rent to collect. If you were a fly on the wall, you might catch him sneaking a wistful glance out the window at his beloved green swimming pool. Whenever Sue sees me passing by the door during their Monday morning debriefings, she gives me a wink and makes the universal “cracking the whip” signal with her hand, wh-tish. Then she roars with laughter and I laugh with her. Nguyen gives a nervous giggle, a drop of sweat running down his temple.
Undated later entry:
A South African guy, named Andrew, moved in a few weeks ago. He took the spacious, damp and gloomy ground floor apartment that opens onto the sticky, stinky communal kitchen. It seemed to me a strange choice. You know the smell of an old, wet, pile of dishcloths? The smell of soggy scraps of food clogging a sink? This is the ripe and rancid perfume that lingers perpetually in the kitchen. Andrew seems to thrive amidst the grime. Maybe thrive is not the right word. Maybe he just relishes the challenge, puts on some Norwegian Death Metal, and goes into battle against the rat-sized cockroaches and the cat-sized rats, or cooks up a variety of experimental dishes, such as chicken feet stroganoff. Or blazes the germs away on his electric guitar. Or wrestles the rusty gym equipment, long hair streaming over his black Metallica t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, sweat-soaked beneath the furious sun.