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The chronicles of two Portlanders in Singapore

It’s not goodbye, it’s see you later.
It’s not goodbye, it’s I’ll be back.
It’s not…

The last few weeks before this moment have been, to put things mildly, emotional.  Whereas our departure from Portland was marked with a bit of an expectation that not much will change, now, here, there’s a likely chance that should I land again at Changi Airport that nothing will be the same, many people I’ve come to know and love will no longer live here and the city, as it is wont to do, will have changed yet again.

“Singapore’s always changing.  Always construction.”  This was Thursday night at an event hosted by The Beast, a Southern American bar/brunch spot, complete with fried chicken and waffles and all the bourbon.  I sipped on my Maker’s Mark1thanks, Phil, and chatted with folks I’ve met through the writer’s group — poets that run a monthly open mic elsewhere in town — listening to last-minute thoughts on the Lion City.  This was a group whom I hadn’t quite gotten to know as well as one would have liked, only seeing them monthly at destinationINK, the aforementioned open mic.  It served as yet another bittersweet reminder of all that’s been left undone here, the avenues of creative exploration, the friendships and relationships that just hadn’t had the time to come alive.

Such is life as an expat, especially in a city like Singapore. Everything changes.

We moved out out of our apartment on Wednesday and have been living in corporate housing in Robinson Quay, just up the river from the more active — and loud — Clarke Quay2again, it’s pronounced “key”.  I’ve written about Clarke Quay quite a bit.  It’s been a bit of a “go-to”, touristy, overpriced, but active, fun, and with more bars than you can shake a stick at.  Robinson is a bit more mellow but still popular.  The area has a bit more of a ‘downtown’ feel; the streets are a bit closer in and there are more towers near us.  There are also older row buildings housing hawkers and a variety of Japanese restaurants, a whole new area for us to explore.  This neighborhood is referred to as “River Valley”, wrapped around the headwaters of the short Singapore River.  We had considered this area nearly as heavily as Holland Village, in the end, the proximity to the Circle Line and the bit quieter Holland won out.  Then again, the even more convenient North-East line runs under Clarke Quay, and I’m sitting here on the river watching droplets hit the water’s surface in the still of a weekday morning.

Such are the hidden gems of the Lion City.  Never stop exploring.

For our last night in Holland Village, we went to the German pub and finished with dessert at the over-the-top desert bar at 2am, a ultra-polished high end bar that features amazing deserts paired with alcohol.  We’d been there once before, when I had finished my first draft.  This time around, I had some insane confection of cotton candy and ice cream shelled in ganache and sent swimming in chocolate liquor.  Both desert and the paired drink were more performance than simple art — the chocolate liquor was poured on the ring of cotton candy, dissolving it back into sugar.  The whiskey cocktail was even more showy; the bartender had burned cinnamon and cloves and a blood orange, and then trapped the smoke in the glass.  This was brought out to me on a board with the glass upside-down and filled with smoke.  The server deftly flipped over the glass and poured in the cocktail as smoke swirled within.

Such is the excess that you must engage in from time to time.  Carpe churro.

The week has been a parade of goodbyes and “oh, let’s do this before you leave”.  Being on the per diem means we’ve been given the amazing privilege to sample some of the upper crust of the city before we depart.  Still, it leaves a bit a discordant note like a piano with one string out of tune.  The Singapore that I’ve come to love is found in the hawkers late into the night eating popiah and curry rice, sharing that final Tiger of the night as sweat beads and laughter rings out.  The laksa in the morning and the lazy afternoons before the rains come and cool everything right the fuck down before the evening starts.  The joy of finding a hidden path to treasures unknown — usually of the gastronomic variety, this is Singapore after all — but also going to an old bar with a friend to find Singaporeans and others metering out truth and lie in rhyme to sing the blues better than I ever could.  All these memories are what I’ll bring back.

To walk around an old neighborhood and find a new place to meet, new even to your guide who’s lived here her whole life.  To see the see the splendor of each morning as the clouds part and the sun has yet to hammer down on the center of the earth.  To be two hours from anything, ready to see the ancient parts of the world that the West has forgot.  To learn about religions unfamiliar, to sit on a street corner in Hanoi with a childhood friend and watch the ebb and flow of humanity, the authority, the lawlessness and as always, the laughter like a benediction in every language.  The easy manner in which you can establish communication without language, “just always smile,” she said, and she was right.  Like a key to every door.  To witness heartbreak so profound that it tears at your very soul and leaves you understanding that we are never big enough to stop the pain and fuckery and misery found in this world, but are so easily able to rise to at least mitigate their effects, to slow their spread.  To erase the sorrow, at least temporarily, with a smile and a joke and the understanding of this amazing truth;

We are all the same.

Sure.  I haven’t been to much of the world.  I’ve only been to three areas of this vast Earth and two of those areas are so united and meshed in culture and value that I walked around another country’s capital and felt that maybe I was just in New York but with more history.  I’ve never seen Africa, or the subcontinent, or mainland Europe or South America or even Western or Eastern Asia.  Maybe there’s a place out there that will challenge that simple thought and destroy my whole world view, but I doubt it.  And I know that had I really tried, I needn’t have gone off to South East Asia to find this out.  But it has helped.  The experience of living in another culture, another part of the world, another country, what it really does is strip away the superficially familiar so that what remains are things that truly unite us.

And sure, some of those things can be superficial.  We sat in a pub in Cambodia watching Aussie-rules football rooting along with a family from Melbourne simply because those things with a bit of beer added can make a friendship, or least stay with you when you lay your head down with a smile on your face.  They can a bit commercial, haggling in a Saigon market, having your heart cut out with every word, or at least acting like it.  Or at night in that same town with a bartender shamelessly flirting with a bit of hope but also with the attitude of fuck it, we’re alive, let’s have fun.

Consequences be damned.  We’re alive and we’re all going to die one day and maybe that’s all we have in common, but it’s enough.

Those things you learn are rarely that fatalistic, but they serve notice that this is, as the mural says, not your practice life.  This is all you get.  And while yes, sometimes you have to charge right in — carpe churro — and do what it is you desire, there is, I think, moments that merely need to be recognized for what they are before you let them pass.

Allow me to explain.

There are moments from this stay in Asia that will remain within me forever.  There are images, there are friendships, and the thing is, regardless of how they live within me, they are temporary.  It is entirely possible there are people whom I have seen for the last time in our lives.  That’s a depressing thought.  But is it not far better to understand that fate, the Gods, the spirits — whatever powers there may be — have arranged things so that you’ve lived in the same city as these wonderful people?  That a simple trick of fate could have prevented you from even meeting said people, seeing those indelible sights, feeling understanding cover you like a warm blanket3or a nice blast of air con?  Of course, those moments could have been something more.  Those friendships could have become lifelong relationships of coffee shops and open mics and travel and writing and magic, but they could have been nothing at all.  Maybe I’m not doing this thought justice.  This journey isn’t stopping here, after all.  Repatriation awaits.  A new part of our life begins, not the resumption of our old life.

So this is not goodbye.  Maybe there are no goodbyes, just the coming and going and the treasures you gain along the way.  Maybe there are only hellos and the longing of seeing those who have touched your heart once final time.

It’s not goodbye, it’s we’ll all meet again.
It’s not goodbye, it’s you’ll be there forever.

It’s not goodbye, Lion City.  It’s thanks for the eighteen months of something amazing.

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