God’s Favorite Customer

We’re expecting our first child!

Yes, cue the confetti cannons, fireworks display and tears of joy, all of them worthy of this moment of pure elation from two individuals who became one and are now excited to be a three. That saying, this was a 3-0 win where the score hardly told the whole story. Though I must preface that while this was certainly a backs-against-the-wall, huddled in, hard fought victory, it was not won thanks to a ricochet off the derriere of a defender and two goalmouth scrambles but by a sparkling hat-trick in second half extra time by the Big Guy himself. The story? Here goes.

It started on a fairly inconspicuous morning on September 2. My wife had her usual Kiwi breakfast and me my cup of coffee. We had taken the day off for our first trimester scan. The morning was bright. We had the confetti cannons loaded, ready for launch that weekend to happy smiles from family and friends. The pregnancy had been smooth thus far – a little nausea and a sudden taste for sweet drinks aside, my wife was checking more good boxes than a heavyweight champ.

I went into the scan much like how I’ve approached most important milestones in my life – certain of the best, unaware of the worst. That’s not to say I am a raging optimist, but I will concede that I can be as thick as a concrete slab on occasion. To be fair to me, in this case I was urged on by how well the pregnancy has gone thus far. My wife on the other hand is not me. She had strongly considered the possibility of the worst but hopeful that things will be okay. This is as close to a winning hand as my wife would allow herself to have in most circumstances. I took that.

On hindsight, the events leading to the scan were mostly blur and hazy. What I remember earliest was sitting next to my wife as the doctor tried coaxing our baby into a clearer position. The ‘Nuchal Translucency’ scan is to measure the clear (translucent) space in the tissue at the back of your baby’s neck to assess your developing baby’s risk of having Down Syndrome and some other chromosomal abnormalities, as well as major congenital heart problems. She was running through a list of things that she could see during the first part of the scan. Limbs, check. Brain development, check. Spine, check. Go baby go.

Then, some silence. Followed by more silence. Keep going doctor, baby is doing well right?

Right?

Next thing, like a movie with choppy editing, I found myself sat at her desk as phrases such as ‘Below 3 is normal and your baby’s is 3.95’, ‘Down Syndrome’, ‘Turner’s Syndrome’ and ‘blood test to see what we are dealing with’ started washing over us like a bucket of cold water in winter. The conjunctions and verbs did not matter. Those phrases are like zombies, and you want to keep them as far away from your kid as possible. Here they were, right in the same room as our baby and we were powerless to do anything.

It’s interesting. When you are served with the worst news possible, words become the least valuable commodity in that exchange. What said more than her assurance that she has presided over cases with these readings where it came back all okay (“1 or 2 cases”) was the prolonged silence as she combed the scanner over our baby. The skip in her voice as she relayed what her recommendations were. That painful millisecond of eye contact she avoided when she said the words ‘it is more likely to be Down Syndrome than Turner’s’.

We were told to take a blood test that will confirm or rule out the possibility up to 99%. The ultrasound scan only provided an accuracy of up to 70%. Let me try and put this in language that makes sense to me. 70% is a pretty decent score. I would spend my valuable weekend afternoon watching a movie with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 70% without question. The numbers were really against our little one.

We would need to wait 10-days for the results. Yes, 10 days.

Both of us experienced the moment quite differently. For me, it was like being invited to a high tea but unknowingly ending up in a shark tank as the day’s feed. For my wife it was like seeing her car crash happening in slow motion but being assured that there are air bags but being told at the last moment that, “Sorry miss, your model doesn’t have air bags.”

We were distraught and dismayed naturally. My wife took it worst than I did mainly because I could retreat into a fight or flight survival mode, a state of mind that had served me well during the more distressing seasons of my existence. I can best describe it as strapping a bullet proof vest on my emotions and preparing to take heavy fire. My wife had mostly lived a charmed existence up till this point, something I’ve always appreciated and valued because it tempers the more cynical sides of me but it did not serve her as well during this crisis.

That saying, compared to my more challenging seasons in life, this one had different taste of poison to it. It’s one thing to contend for one’s own life with some cards to play, it’s another to contend for the life of a helpless being with a pretty bad hand. The more accurate depiction is that we had no hand, no cards left to play, we were flayed out in the sun, awaiting our fate. We turned to binges of ‘Midnight Diner’ and ice cream (Inside Scoop’s ‘Cempedak’ and ‘Peanut Butter and Jelly’ the chief comforters) to soothe the days over, to distract us from a 50/50 fate with vastly different repercussions.

Terminating the pregnancy, if we were given the news we did not want, was of course not an option. Even removing the obvious Christian reason, I was never going to do it. Not after my little one raised its hand and waved during the ultrasound. Once you accept a wave, you can never take it back (I have since considered the possibility that it was not a wave but a gesture representation of The Beatles’ 1970 hit ‘Get Back’).

There was really nothing much to do but pray. I don’t want to say this like ‘it’s the last girl in the tuition class who is single so you ask her out’ kind of thing but that we were desperate for a miracle and God was really the only one who could provide it. We prayed as soon as we opened our eyes in the morning and prayed just before we shut it in the night.

Our close friends literally cried with us and called us every day to pray for us, prayed with us and encouraged us. They prayed prayers of comfort to war cries for a miracle for our little one. They did communion with us. They had calls with us to just catch up to get our minds off the wait. They recorded prayers and sent them to us. They sent us articles and stories to encourage us. They contended for a miracle for our little one. Our close friends formed a wall around us and protected us from all sides. We are so grateful for them.

Our families prayed with us. My in-laws very sweetly invited us over, uncharacteristic during this pandemic mainly because my wife was not vaccinated so they preferred to keep a distance, and awkwardly suggested a prayer session with my father-in-law penning his prayer down in a notebook. If you don’t know them, I will tell you this – it was an amazingly sweet gesture. My mom went nuclear positive and started suggesting doctors make mistakes all the time and medical machines are never always serviced properly so readings can be wrong. In hindsight, I wish I had the faith and positivity of my mom because as ridiculous as it sounded to us at the time, she was not far from the truth.

I was hopeful, my wife did not dare hope. I tempered my language, toggling between a very niche space of not giving into despair and putting on the complete cloak of hopelessness when speaking with her. My wife asked me how can I so easily have hope. I told her that if you’ve been in enough hopeless situations, a little hope is better than not having any at all.

I know the language I had used up till this point to describe the less desirable outcome can sound too negatively-slanted and perhaps disrespectful to parents with special needs children but this cannot be further from the truth for both my wife and me. All parents begin this journey wanting their children to be healthy and normal but the love we have for our child is not conditional at all. We took the week to process both possible outcomes. Our very human and fallible nature would of course lean towards God tying everything up in a neat bow for the two of us at the end of the 10 days but we also equally processed the possibility of us having a special needs kid.

I won’t lie, the start of the process was difficult for the two of us, owing mainly to having a metaphorical carpet being pulled from under our whole lives. We were mostly reeling from that. As the days flipped by though, we started coming closer and closer to a place of beauty about having a special needs child. I told my wife that in some moments when I think about our family in the future, our kid in that picture is a special needs child and it looked so beautiful to me. I told my wife that if God’s plan is for us to raise a special needs child then I can’t think of two people more qualified for the job.

We were encouraged by stories of people who raised a child with Down Syndrome and how the whole experience was like a positive atom bomb of happiness and love being detonated in the middle of their lives and their other children’s lives. I don’t want to sound condescending because I really am not, but I truly came to a place of such respect for people who have raised special needs children with love and hope. It’s a thing of such pure beauty in this world where the word ‘love’ is sometimes thrown around so cheaply.

But God had other plans though.

At around 3.45pm on September 13, 11 calendar days and 7 working days after we got the news and submitted for the blood test, my wife burst into my work room while I was on a work call with tears in her eyes. Fearing the worst, I haphazardly got off the call and walked up to her, intending to comfort her that everything will be okay because God has a plan when she showed me the message from the clinic that read …

“Good day, your screening blood test report is low risk. Do you want to know gender?”

And just like that, nonchalantly, we were delivered the news. No screeching ring of the phone. No dramatic build-up or necessary verbal gestures over a call. Just a by-the-way message in mid afternoon from a nurse who has probably presided over hundreds of these tests with low risk results, unaware of the week we’ve had. And with a snap of a finger, God had tied the destiny of our little one back into a neat ribbon and restored the carpet back under our feet. It was both a thing of unbelievable beauty and pristine tidiness. God is indeed good and God was indeed willing to give us that miracle. And so He did.

September 13 was in many ways a culmination of a journey that God brought my wife and me on to land us at this perfect place. From my reservations about being a father, my wife’s mental hurdles regarding unrealistic expectations of her and our slight travails during conception, God managed to bring to attention and answer each of those things for us with sharp, emphatic gestures. It’s been quite an adventure but one I am glad to report, brings about the satisfaction of a happy ending. I say this in a way that encapsulates the entire journey and not to suggest that any outcome besides this would’ve been an unhappy ending.

I think God quite wonderfully brought us to a place where we were assured that any outcome would’ve inevitably been a happy ending. We reminded ourselves that despite the scare at the scan that by all accounts our baby was developing well in all other areas and that no matter what hurdles we would have to jump, we would have provided a refuge of love and protection to our child.

I guess for those of you that do not accept stories of the miraculous without a fistful of salt, I unfortunately have no well-drawn charts, roll of citations or 10-point arguments to offer you. It’s always been a struggle of mine to explain the personal relationship I have with God in a way that satisfies a skeptic’s penchant for not wanting to believe. I know, my wife knows and our child is now well despite all the numbers and statistics working strongly against us. There is a strong emotional connection that is form between you and God when you cry out to him in despair, against the odds of the world and he answers in a way that makes it so clear to you that He hears every word.

The beauty of this miracle that God was willing to do for us is none more perfectly incapsulated than in the smile that returned on my wife’s face the morning after we received the good news. She has asked me if it was a dream, during the harrowing 11-day wait. I had said unfortunately, no. She asked me again on the morning of 14 September if it was a dream. I was so glad that I was able to tell her, “Fortunately, no.”

I’ve taken to challenging myself to sing my little one a Beatles song a day every night before we sleep until birth day. On September 13, I sang ‘The Long and Winding Road’. I had told my wife days earlier that no matter the outcome, I would sing that song on that day anyway …

‘The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here
Lead me to you door’

Pull over now

I watched a documentary called ‘After So Many Days’ yesterday about a little-known husband and wife musical duo called Jim and Sam who embarked on an adventure to play a show a day for a year and how that tested their resolve as a band and as a couple.

I found many aspects of this film moving and affecting at quite a fundamental level. The scene where Jim declared them the ‘Unluckiest Band in the World’ after their highly anticipated but failed SXSW show and started reading out a list of imaginary emails from publications and shows that they wished had invited them for interviews and meetings was painful to watch. Only because I absolutely know what that feels like. I’ve been at that end of that barrel before. Anyone that has every tried to bring their art into a public space knows what that feels like.

Jim and Sam’s adventure, while looking like magnificent copy on paper, was of course, anything but. There were shows that were cancelled cause of weather, shows where they had to just pitch up and play literally anywhere (pizza parlors, salons, barber shops, liquor stores, etc) cause there were no official shows on those days and shows where they had so much hope for which crashed and burned.

Yet, I can’t but feel that at the end of such an arduous year that most people would call pointless (they may have gathered a few new fans along the way but their Instagram followers numbers suggests that they may not have blown up the way they were hoping to) , that the most valuable thing that they have are the memories of that adventure together and that is something that will remain special when the lights are dimmed and the curtains are slowly drawn on their lives.

Sure, experiences like in the Northeast in that mussels restaurant on day 55 was probably painful to endure. No musician enjoys seeing their art being ignored on the account of shellfish. But there was also that wonderful experience of singing at that convenience store on day 110 to a bunch of people who appreciated their music. That show on day 224 in the UK where because Sam was bedridden from stomach flu, they invited some neighbors over and sang a song to them while she was in bed. That spontaneous song they played on day 258 in a bakery in honor of Jim’s aunt who passed away that day. That show in Poland on day 332 where they played to an appreciative crowd and the owner made them fish after the show. That song they sang to two appreciative Starbucks drive-thru staff in the States. Or that show on day 204 playing to a herd of cows in Sweden. Yes, even that half a song they played to that delivery guy in Iceland. The shows in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, etc.

I watch a film like this and it just makes me consider so many things. So many deep feelings about so many things. The life I’ve led. The chances I’ve not taken. The things I could have experienced. I do not envy people who have more things than me in life. People who pursue wealth so they can afford richer food, nicer cars and larger houses. If they are happy with that then it’s great for them. I feel mostly apathy towards people who have more stuff than me.

But I watch an experience like what Jim and Sam just went through in the film and I am seething with envy. Seriously seething. Envy for the fact that they found someone that was equally willing to leave their conventional lives behind momentarily in pursuit of something insane. Envy for how they had the lack of self-consciousness to even attempt an experience as nerve-wrecking as this one. Envy for the fact that for now until the end of their lives, they will always have this amazing adventure that no one will ever be able to take away from them.

And that is really just amazing. So amazing.

You fear the wrong thing baby

I was asked by my wife last night what my hope was for 2021.

I gave the usual answer with a side of ‘peace on earth, mercy mild and God and sinners reconcile’. Rather telling was that nowhere in my succinct list was there a hope for things to go back to what they were.

Buried deep in my heart, I’ve not been very eager for things to go back to what they were.

Of course I say this without any prejudice towards people who have struggled financially through this pandemic or people who have had loved ones taken by it. I have nothing but respect for you who have soldiered through 2020 under those circumstances.

It’s unfortunate that it took a ravaging pandemic for humanity to take stock of its decisions and to just stop where it was heading. My deep wish was that it was a white paper by a very smart person, a rallying call by the leaders of the world or heck, a song by Bruce Springsteen. Instead it took a pandemic.

As I sit here typing this, I just witnessed a well-dressed man trying to enter a building, without a mask, confidently walking in and gesturing to the guard that he’s just heading up a floor and he should be allowed an exception. He was subsequently pulled back and told that he needed to check-in, get his temperature taken and was asked to put on his mask just like everyone else behind him. Turns out he did not have a mask with him. He was denied entry and was told to head to a store across the road to buy one. He stepped out and just stood there for a few minutes. Occasionally shuffling around his pockets, looked back at the door, wrestled with his ego a little before walking across the road to get himself a mask.

It felt a fitting analogy to the minute good that the pandemic has had on society. For too long the agenda of humanity has been organised not by severity, but by class. And while inequality continues to exist in any civilised society driven by capitalism, there is a slight warmth that comes from having the entitled among us reined in a little. It seems almost poetic justice that it should come in the form of the one thing that levels the playing field for all of us – our impending mortality. I guess it has to be that for everyone to take notice of it. This was not a ‘poor person’s problem’. It was a disease that crept into the highest halls of society and government.

For too long we’ve been a society that ignores the plights of the marginalised, underappreciated the ones who worked unseen to keep the pillars of our lifestyles in place and rewarded the people who continue to sink us deeper into our mire. Something desperately needed to change.

Again, I stress that I am saddened that it took the lives of millions.

I guess we had gone so far into self-destruction, it required something equally devastating to stop us.

Sleeps with butterflies

‘There was no party, there were no songs
‘Cause today’s just a day like the day that he started
No one has left here that knows his first name
And life barrels on like a runaway train
Where the passengers change
They don’t change anything
You get off; someone else can get on …’ – Ben Folds

I’ve been thinking a lot about death.

I know, it’s hardly the appropriate tidings for the season but it is what it is. Don’t get me wrong, I also in equal measure enjoy staring at our lovely Christmas tree and recently, watching ‘Love Actually’ as the token yuletide movie of the year. So it’s not like I am growing moldy sitting alone at home on a wing chair in the dark. But at the same time I have also been thinking about death, a lot. I see it even in songs that are really not about death (The Ben Folds song above is about someone being laid off).

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the precise moment when it happens and how that would feel like.

As a Christian, I’ve been conditioned since young to focus on what happens after that moment. The bright light, the rejoicing, the yellow brick road and Oz. Just kidding. Jokes aside, I do fundamentally believe in the moment after of course. You can’t exactly subscribe to only a portion of what you consider the truth. But it won’t stop me considering the flip-side to that which is just a big well, nothing. No big party. No bright lights. Just, nothing. The cliché often employed is that it’s like going to sleep but not waking up.

I must confess at certain points of my existence that has sounded somewhat, comforting. Lately it hasn’t been though. I’ve been thinking a lot about what ‘nothing’ feels like.  Yes, it feels like nothing, of course.  But that just seems so stark, so brutal. That the amount of energy and force-of-will that it takes for us to go through life is just snuffed out in an instant and there is just, nothing.

If I am being honest it feels a little lonely. Not that you would be conscious of that when it happens because you are just in that big nothing, but that’s my sentiment on how the nothing would feel like.

In this age of almost unmitigated popular culture saturation, one can become a little desensitised about death and to be fair, for a long time, I was. But lately, I’ve been processing every death I read about or even see on screen. I consider what it would’ve felt like for them at the point of death and how it would’ve felt like if they had indeed stepped into the huge nothing. Even reading about people who have long gone sparks bouts of rumination. Like how I recently read about the making of Bowie’s 1971 record ‘Hunky Dory’ and I started thinking about how it’s been already four-years since he’s died and how he would never been experiencing new things anymore, new sounds and new words and everything with him has just come to a grinding halt. And this is a man who literally rewrote the rules of rock music. What more me, some random guy living in Kuchai Lama?

“Every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re gonna die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” – from TV show The Good Place.

I write all this in the expectation that weeks from now, I won’t remember that I wrote a single one of these words. That like most existential crises, it just fades away to the background because something else just becomes louder. That quote from The Good Place sums it up nicely. That the very concept that our expiry clock starts on the day we are born should be enough to render us unwilling to do anything and just give up altogether. But humans are resilient and we just get on with it, by minimising this dark inevitability into the background of our lives and to just kick this bucket decades down the road and occupy ourselves with things that gives us meaning and happiness today. If you think about it, life is just a series of distraction tactics.

I am also cognisant of the fact that I appear to be writing all this rather atheistically. Like I personally believe there is just a huge nothing after we die. But that’s not what I believe. I believe there is something more awaiting us at the other side.

At least, there has to be.

Can’t buy me love

I was having a conversation recently with a friend and she raised a point about whether she was doing enough with her life, given many people have earned millions by the time they were her age. It’s a logical thread of thought. The human disposition, and in many ways, its sickness is often that it feels it doesn’t have enough and as such, should pursuit more. We quickly concluded that we are just people that don’t love money and success enough to give up just about anything in pursuit of it.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the little comforts that money brings. Like having a stable roof over my head with air-conditioning (my wife still doesn’t believe I was born in Iceland and dragged forcefully into a tropical hell but the truth will always remain the truth), having a spacious couch and a TV in front of it, taking my wife out to a dinner she deserves on occasion, having the ability to buy a vinyl I really want on some months, rewarding myself with a decent cup of coffee when I feel like it and buying a slightly more expensive book that I really want to read, off BBW season. I do enjoy these things.

Except personally, I really don’t need much more beyond these things.

I still drive my 11-year old Toyota even though we can probably afford a nicer car. The day I change it would be because it can no longer practically fulfill its function for me, and not because I want to drive a newer, sexier car. I have no desire to buy more expensive music equipment. I still play my trusty Peavey because I’ve always managed to make it sound right to me.  I could upgrade my sound setup at home to something slicker but the hand-me-downs I have now works just fine so why change it? The clincher of it all is that lately, the chorus of ‘let’s change our TV to something nicer’ has been coming more from my wife’s end than mine, the supposed ‘TV addict’.

We did spend on traveling. We did it because we agreed very early on that if we were going to spend on anything, it would be on experiences. Things that enrich our lives in a way shinier possessions could not. For the rest of our lives, me and her will always have that drive we took on the Northcoast 500 in the highlands of Scotland with Mazzy Star playing on the car stereo back in 2018. No one can ever take that away from us and it most certainly won’t end up in a landfill.

I’ve always seen traveling as a privilege anyway, and not a right. I am grateful for everything I experienced but if I experience nothing else for the rest of my life, it’s fine. A person with an upbringing like mine was not supposed to be able to walk the beaches of Paros. At some point, I might’ve accessed a cheat code and honestly, I am just glad I managed to get away with it.

I’ve always felt like this – that money has no hold on me beyond the basic comforts I require. Except for the longest time, I had not enough of it. I was labelled by someone once close to me that I was calculative when it comes to money. It’s quite hard not to be when you are splitting pennies. I wasn’t doing it because I loved it so much that I was not willing to part with it. I was doing it because I was trying to ensure I have enough.

These days, I am firstly thankful that I have enough. This is important to me and I take not a day of it for granted. Which is why I tell my wife that I hate it when we waste food unnecessarily because I don’t want to forget the days when my family had not enough of it. How I almost never buy clothes that are above a certain price, no matter how much I like or can afford it. How I almost always eat at the same ‘Yong Tau Foo’ place near my home when I am having dinner on my own. And I actually do still get the tingles at the prospect of eating baked beans and luncheon meat with rice (it’s the best). Some of these things I do instinctively, some of it I do intentionally; to remind myself that while I am thankful for where I’ve ended up, I am also grateful for where I came from. I don’t ever want to turn soft from comfort and become ungrateful and entitled.

Yes, on most days, I am thankful I have enough. And on some days, I am thankful that because I do, I can confidently say now that money really has little hold on me.

There is a deep comfort that comes from knowing that.

Sweetest kill

“I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open with only me to help. And then I want you strong again. You’re not going to die. You might wish you’re going to die, but you’re not going to. You need to settle down a little.” – Alma, Phantom Thread (2017)

The line above rounded off a gorgeously-affecting movie with a drop of cough mixture, leaving us with taste, perhaps a little too bitter in the mouth. It was a cunning sleigh of hand, a slap from your blind side. For the length of film, you were working on the pretense that what we would see unfold is love eventually warming the oddest of hearts, and you would be forgiven in thinking that was what you got in the end, but what we got was really not a tale about love.

It was a tale about addiction.

That Alma was willing to accept Reynolds in whatever shape, form or posture, just as long he was present and that Reynolds was essentially willing to subject himself to whatever contortion just to have her continue to be around, reeks of something a lot more nefarious than love should be. I consider myself to be fairly open to rather leftist iterations of what love could look like but this really does not look like love. It looks more like addiction.

Which then set me off on a lengthy thought process about how it would look like to be addicted to someone. I mean it’s certainly plausible, since Robert Palmer had a hit about it back in 1985. Then again he sang about being addicted to love, which may be slightly different from being addicted to someone. Okay, overthinking again. In any case, it’s irrelevant (the plausibility of the Robert Palmer song’s contents), given that I am someone who recovered from being addicted to someone. So it does happen.

It’s ironic because having someone be ‘addicted’ to you may be a prose that can be celebrated by selected public as an acceptable expression of love. To some it is the promise land – to have someone be helplessly fawning over you.

But yet the dysfunctionality presents itself in its byproduct. You would be hard pressed to defend the idea that an addict is simply someone who loves his drugs too much. It’s a little more sinister than that. So to equate that to love seems a little too radical even for someone who is more fluid with these things.

So if you are someone who enjoys the idea of someone potentially being addicted to you, then you are not behaving like a lover, but like a drug. You put yourself out there and hope that someone gets hooked-in, line and sinker. You may think what you’ve reeled in is a lover, but what you’ve caught is really an addict.

The dysfunctional relationships and friendships I’ve had in my life have always looked a lot like addiction. I may have tried to label them as a severely sacrificial form of love but in hindsight, they actually looked a lot more like an addiction – the drug being the person you are addicted to.

I’ve since considered the symptoms I was showing at the time when I was in those dysfunctional relationships; the abandonment of logic and principle, alienating friends and loved ones; a constant need for the person to be around; severe anxiety when there are signs that I can no longer be with the person; mounting financial problems driven by the need to service the addiction; severe rationalization of situation no matter how obvious that things were not going well, etc. I could go on.

Like an addict, you are quite powerless to stop yourself from being addicted. People have asked me why I subjected myself to those relationships and friendships? Why couldn’t I see how destructive they were? Why did I allow myself to be hung so far out to dry? Why did I behave with so little dignity?

To be honest, the answer is I don’t know.

It does look really cloudy on the inside. There is some awareness that things are not well but you fear even entertaining the thought of not having your drug anymore. So you hold on with all your might and hope the drug doesn’t destroy you too much and that people around you do not notice how it is changing you, killing you.

I have at times described this addiction as a kind of imbalance. I can see it quite clearly in some relationships and friendships, even today. I suppose an ex-addict will always be able to spot another addict. What does it look like? To put it simply, it looks a lot like one party having a lot more dependency on the other. Like how an addict is completely vulnerable to the whims and fancies of the drug they are addicted to and is willing to do just about anything to ensure they don’t ever lose it. I see it in their body language as a couple, I see it in the words they use, I see it in the decisions that are made.

And it still scares the daylights out of me when I see it today, even in others.

I sometimes do worry if that addiction has damaged me irreparably. But then, I am also comforted by the realisation that this worry keeps me on the edge, so I can ensure that I never fall into it ever again. The important thing I’ve realised from my addiction is that the drug is merely just a manifestation of what I desired. If it’s not that person, it would’ve been someone else. They became the drug because I desired to be an addict. I desired to be an addict because I was broken inside.

Contrary to what the hits tell you, love is not blind, love doesn’t have to bite, love doesn’t make you lost and love doesn’t make you lose yourself.

But a drug would. So don’t do drugs.

Wake up

You can never get enough of what you don’t really want

from Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things

Me and the wife sat down and watched a good documentary film yesterday about, well, ‘the important things’, according to its title. The film is essentially a statement of how uncontrolled consumerism has been ruining our lives. It doesn’t really say anything we have not already considered but it managed to say it in a way that compelled. And tuck between the many quotable statement by the many people who were featured in it was the quote above, and it has sufficiently lodged itself into my head since.

Throughout this pandemic, I have started and ended many days, glued to the screen, consuming the news on what is happening around the world. One of the rhetoric that keeps recurring in discussions between world leaders and experts in their various fields is the concern on when people can start ‘resuming’ their lives.

Everyone is so preoccupied in wanting to ‘resume’ their lives that no one has bothered asking if we should. And I am not talking about a longer MCO. Perhaps if there is anything we should be learning from this crisis or should learn at its eventual conclusion is that life most certainly should not resume as it was before this happened. That we should take this as a harsh, harsh lesson on how we should rethink the way we’ve lived our lives. If we have taken some moment to look beyond the just fact that this crisis has severely interrupted the routines of our existence and beyond to what its larger implications have been, we would have started asking ourselves some very difficult self-admonishing questions about the way we’ve gone about things as a species before all this happened. This pandemic has in one or two deadly swoops, essentially decimated our way of living, one we’ve spent hundreds of years constructing. This disease respects no one you respect, and loves no one you love. It takes who it wants to, no matter if you are the most powerful man in your company and home, or if you’re living on the fringes of poverty. And in just a matter of months it has in essence managed to make humanity do something it probably hasn’t in thousands of years. To stop. To halt progress.

It’s tragic to think that it has taken an awful virus that squeezes your lungs and literally chokes the last breaths out of you, to get us to stop. Yet what have we been preoccupied by in this moment of halt? Resumption, to continue the journey we were on before. Instead perhaps what we should be doing is to ‘reflect’. To start asking ourselves questions progress has distracted us from asking. Was the journey we were on really that great? Was the journey we were on making us happy? Or have we at some point in the last few hundred years, completely and utterly lost the plot?

In the learning and development industry, there is a concept of how we should chunk out our development time called ’70-20-10′. It refers to the percentage of time we should spend on different areas of development. Have we similiarly started asking ourselves how we’ve chunked out what and where we spend our time on in the routines of our lives?

Have we started asking ourselves what and who we should value in our lives? That we sometimes prefer to spend more time with people who really wouldn’t matter after we submit a resignation letter, over the people who will be there beside you at your deathbed at the end of our existence. That the only reason why this happens is because we have a new car to pay for or an ego that needs servicing through stature in society?

Have churches and institutions of worship started asking itself how things should be different in the future? That churches should perhaps look different than how it did before? Less foundations and mascara and more ‘the bits in between the teeth’ because that is where the people are truly suffering. I love seeing the church going back community work as being its main agenda. It’s not that the church has stopped doing it before, but we can argue that it has not been its main agenda for a while now. One only needs to take a look at where it spends most of its time to truly know what matters to it.

That when there are no sharp suits for cameras to trail on or no fancy imagery to dazzle our senses that perhaps that is when one can properly question themselves what truly is their relationship with God all about? That when the routines of worship are taken apart, reconstituted and smashed that it is an opportunity for people to truly ask themselves the sobering questions they’ve been distracted from asking themselves all this while?

Have we as a society asked ourselves what we truly value? Because talks is cheap. I have read hundreds of tributes from people towards those of us who are working in the front lines – the nurses and caregivers, the people sorting out the fresh produces you buy, the cashier at your grocery store, the people who deliver your lunch to your doorstep. That in this time of crisis, these are our heroes, the people who are keeping society from collapsing altogether. Matthew 6:1 in the Bible says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Have we started taking a long and hard look at how, in the future, we can appreciate the important roles these front liners play for our society more by not having them be constantly struggling at the fringes of society but to put our ‘treasure’ towards where all our hearts are at the moment, which is alongside wherever they are, risking their lives for us. Let’s not forget that when life ‘resumes’.

Actually, instead of striving to ‘resume’ our life, we should instead be striving to ‘restart’ it, from zero. Or perhaps to ‘reboot’ it. Anything but just simply resuming it to what it was before, because that would be the tragedy that follows the first, that despite paying for it with the lives of people we loved that we did nothing with the time and instead went back to exactly what we had before. And that we learned nothing from it all.

The truth is, whether we like it or not, life won’t be the same anymore for a lot of us for some time. We will be forced to rethink the constituents of our existence and how we go about it no matter what. We can spend that time kicking against that notion or we can use it as an opportunity to reflect on how it can be different.

Perhaps we should start thinking about what we don’t want anymore in our existence, in our society and to not chase those things anymore. To be different from here onward.

I’ll end my thoughts here with a quote from a book (‘Everything that Remains’ by The Minimalists) that was featured in the film.

“I’d been running in one direction as fast as I could, chasing this abstract thing called happiness, but I’d been running the wrong way. I was sprinting east looking for a sunset, when all I really had to do was turn around and walk—not run, just walk—in the other direction.”

My instincts are the enemy

I once scoffed when a friend told me that the reason why her brother broke up with his girlfriend was because, ‘she felt too good for him’. 

I scoffed for two reasons. The obvious being that it sounded like a blatant cop-out. The kiss before the punch. ‘No longer attracted to you anymore’ or ‘I’ve fallen for another person’ not cutting the mustard for his nice-guy image perhaps? It’s like the choice between shooting someone cleanly in the head and ending their misery in a split-second or elaborately trying to hang them on a noose and watching the life drain slowly from their eyes. Assuming you really needed to end someone’s life, I don’t think I need to point out to you which is the better option. 

The second reason I scoffed was that it felt like he was pissing on my meal. A large portion of society are trying to get to a point where they are happy. Or at the very least, happier than where they are at the moment. Some of these people do not know the first thing about where to start getting there. And here comes my friend’s brother who found the door, but decided to slam it shut cause it looked too inviting. 

Sure, in longer hindsight I can recognise that my prejudice grossly oversimplifies the idea of happiness and just how difficult it can sometimes be to allow yourself to be happy when it finally arrives at your doorstep. 

I am at a place where a decade ago, I would define as being ‘where I wanted to go’. I got the girl, I got a home and I have a job that I do not hate. I have enough time to catch up on my TV to unwind on some weekdays and to serve the community at my church on most Wednesdays and some weekends. I am no longer the Arthur Fleck-type character that can’t seem to pull his life together no matter how hard he tried. After 42-years of existing, I may be finally be coming to something resembling equilibrium in my life. Took a while, but I finally got here. 

But yet, I have this almost subconscious compulsion to find something to be unhappy about even when things are going splendid. Perhaps there are those of us that are built with a little more complex parts. Parts that are too intricate so there are more opportunities for the machinery to break down. At least, that is what I say to console myself.

‘You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.’ 

Jin Lee, Columbus (2017)

I’ve been thinking about this quote that zipped almost pass me in the gorgeous sleeper drama Columbus that I watched recently. It’s one of those films that appears to be about nothing, but is really about everything. 

I love films like that sometimes, beyond the smash-grab kaiju films that mostly fill me with glee. Films that can draw you into their solitude somehow by draining all excesses of entertainment, until all that is left is just an emptiness that almost reflects the pockets within the major events of our lives, films like that intrigue and attract me. I almost always feel the same after the credits roll on them. I would like to know more about what happened to the characters. Did they get to where they needed to go? You almost always don’t. And from that minor feeling of frustration and cluelessness, births a kind of fictional loneliness in the heart that I am somehow attracted to. 

I sometimes think I have a sordid love affair with loneliness. I know it is wrong, but I can’t help it. I keep retreating back to that place of despair, like a dog that voluntarily walks back into a small cage, even though they’ve been set free from it, I’ve been conditioned by a kind of loneliness throughout my life and I feel the need to sometimes retreat back there when the lights are the brightest, to hold its hand occasionally just to be sure that it’s cold, unloving comfort is still there if I need it. 

Perhaps my unconscious need to feel this loneliness occasionally mirrors my choice of films. That for every loud, banging blockbuster I watch, I seem to need to dial it all down back into a tiny little arty movie about two unrelated people who meet in a gorgeous charming town and find some solidarity in their respective solitude. Perhaps it is a bid to balance out the diet, with films as is with life. That only in constantly reminding ourselves of unhappiness that we can truly appreciate happiness. Again, this sounds like something I would say to make myself feel better about not feeling better. There is a special kind of insanity that I feel sometimes, being in this body, straddled with this mind.

You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.

Perhaps the trick is to think of this nothing, as something.

This is Austria – Day 1-3 (Salzburg)

The charm of a city for me, as I have often noted, is almost never in the sights.

Very few statues, monuments and buildings that would have trigger-happy vacationers snapping away their phone cameras like semi-automatic machine guns, interest me on a fundamentally emotional level. I can appreciate its beauty, assuming if it is indeed beautiful, but I often find myself gravitating emotionally towards things less seen. It might be a byproduct of not wanting to associate myself with thoughtless holidaymakers who very often may be taking a picture because they are told they should or that the person next to them is. I feel like saying ‘it’s not that I’m being judgmental’, but yeah I am. I can still remember the exact moment this became an issue for me.

It was The British Museum, London, 2018, at the Rosetta Stone display. The throngs of vacationers with their monopods and phone snapping away, a lot of them with their flash functions on, just imbedded something inside me and made me feel like I did not want to be there anymore. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with taking a picture of something that interests you, I do it all the time when I am traveling. The thing that made me feel sad was that almost none of them appeared interested to look at the stone with their own eyes, or even read the description on the display. A majority of them walked away after they got a picture. “Box ticked, let’s move on to the next thing I am supposed to take a picture of”. The entire situation was such a put-off that it made me completely disinterested with looking at the Rosetta Stone for myself. It’s like hating someone cause they shared the same first name as the guy who managed to snag your school crush.

We landed in Vienna at around slightly after lunchtime and proceeded to procure a car from one of the most obscure car rental section of any airport I’ve ever been to. I mean it felt like we were descending into Plato’s ninth circle of hell or the multiple levels of a suburban shopping mall (Yes, they are the same thing). Granted my mind may be a little foggy now on the exact details but the journey from the Arrival gate to the counter might’ve been a little like this.

  • Take an escalator down two floors.
  • Turn left just before the coffee stand and walk into the door just next to the broom closet.
  • Turn left just before the toilet but after the subway scene in the ‘Bad’ video.
  • Take a flight of stairs six floors down.
  • Fight through four battalions of orcs.
  • Third counter on the left.

It felt like the rental car companies in the airport were being treated like Milton in Office Space.

Our left-sided ‘orange is the new loud’ steed …

We got handed a sparkly orange Jeep as our ride which is just the kind of loud statement we needed for someone (me) who had never driven on the left-side before. I mean what would you prefer if you had a car heading towards you on collision course – a boring silver sedan or a bright orange Jeep? My point’s exactly. That saying, left-side drive turned out to be not so bad. It’s really just a matter of thinking something but doing the opposite. Kind of like being in a marriage (okay low ball, don’t murder me dear). Three hours, a bitter lemon and a Beatles playlist later, we arrived at the legendary city of Salzburg. Yes, birthplace of Mozart, the Salzburger Nockerl and do-re-mi (Eh, no?).

One of the pictures I took on the walk during the first night.

My first meeting with Salzburg was a hopeful one. You know how it is when you meet someone for the first time and exchange pleasantries. In rather rare occasions you get this urge and prompt that this might be someone you want to have a proper conversation with, to actually get to know better. It’s hard to say what it boils down to. A slight pause in the middle of a sentence that seems intuitive to you, an inappropriate quip that happens to mirror what you were thinking as well, the color of their eyes, etc. It was like that with me and Salzburg. Our accommodation only had one shower and there were four of us so I slipped out for a short walk around the city while everyone else proceeded to clean airplane grime off them. It was really short, 20-minutes perhaps. I walked down Griesgasse and turned left on to Franz-Josef-Kai, walked along the riverside and up the Makartsteg bridge. The air was cool but not biting and the streets was quiet but not deserted. It was just the perfect combination of factors that made it pleasant after a long drive and flight before that. That 20-minutes, to gather my thoughts and reflect, gave me a nice in, to gradually develop an affection for the city. Catch even the most stand-up guy on the wrong day and you’re still not going to feel it. This was really giving each other whatever that’s necessary to form a meaningful friendship. That walk helped me do that. Me and Salzburg had a nice handshake and agreed we would see how this would go.

For me, the charm of Salzburg was not in Mozart Wohnhaus (the residence where Mozart grew up in), Hohensalzburg Castle or St. Peter’s Abbey, all admittedly beautiful, historically-rich and magnificent structures. It also wasn’t in the sprawling Mirabell Gardens, key stop in The Sound of Music tour, which my father-in-law was on in his mind, although I did managed to get a good shot there of myself without my gut hanging-out. Rarer than a golden tiger in a Karen Millen dress, that one.

The charm of Salzburg for me was in the streets worming from and around Residenplatz. Not the fountain where it was the site of some Von Trapp noodling but the unadorned and quirky streets strewn all around it like after-meal spaghetti specks on a plate.

I’ve always been attracted to the underbelly of a city more than its fashionable threads. I feel the true treasure of someone is never realized on their best days anyway, but their worst. It’s probably why I am innately drawn to characters with at least some residue darkness in them. I have very little interest in supposedly well-adjusted individuals.

I think it was Kurt Cobain who said, ‘I was tired of pretending that I was someone else just to get along with people, just for the sake of having friendships.’ Okay actually that just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to the point I am trying to make but I was really struggling trying to find a suitable quote that was made by someone that is relevant to me. But I’m sure you get what I am trying to get at.

That saying, this was as well-sculpted an underbelly you would ever see. There are little nooks that take you to lovely tiny shops selling anything from Christmas trinkets to marmalade. It was not at all grimy or seedy. No slimy red-faced gruff in a floral shirt with stacks of gold chains around his neck that’s dying to be your genie in a bottle here. Just nice little cobblestone paths that lead into little gritty tunnels that open up into pretty squares.

I’ve always rated cities based on my very own ‘possibilities’ scale. What does this scale mean? It means I rate it according to the level of possibility that I may discover something interesting while walking its streets. I rate malls under the same scale too. The quickest way to turn me off a mall is to have exactly the same franchises every other mall has but in newer and larger lots. No interest in that at all.

I am more fascinated by dingy malls. The ones that offer the papa who’s been making coffee out of the same hell hole for the last 15-years. The one with the music shop with old faded CBS cassette copies of Springsteen albums. I have no interest in things that can be put together with a large pay cheque. I am attracted to history, to stories and well, possibilities. Salzburg does not rank as high up that scale as say a city like Bangkok or Mykonos, but it’s still pretty decent. The little nooks as mentioned, offer some hope for possibilities and that drove my intrigue enough to explore it further.

That saying, the culinary breath and borders of Austria leaves little room for any exploration. If Thailand’s was the size of the Americas, then Austria’s would be the size of my living room. Okay, sorry, there I go over-exaggerating again. I tend to do it when I am excited. It’s probably the size of an apartment block. Yup no more exaggeration. No ships needed to conquer this baby at all. Most restaurants that serve native Austrian food serve roughly about the same things, and there are not much twists to the tale. There are differences. Serving your Wiener Schnitzel with elderberry jam as opposed to lingonberry jam is a minor twist but hardly one that will get you off your seat. It’s mostly still a slab of breaded deep fried meat. I did not have a Schnitzel incidentally when I was at Salzburg. I was saving it like the epic orchestral closer of an album. It needed the right time and feeling.

Bärenwirt did provide a decent introduction into what Austria had to offer (which we later found out was the equivalent of three-chord punk songs that toggle between meat and potatoes). That saying this was pretty decent meat and potatoes. Parked under a hostel, the restaurant offered what off-hand looked like interesting choices. The frothed beer soup starter was interesting. I liked it. The wife wasn’t so convinced. I think she was expecting old cucumber soup with beer.

The Gebackene Kalbsleber mit Erdäpfel-Gurkensalat caught our eye (not because it sounded like an evil Germanic spell to us) but because it was ‘deep-fried calf’s liver with potato-cucumber salad’ (sorry to disappoint you spellcasters). I mean if you’re going to walk the tightrope with uric acid, why not be completely suicidal instead? I did love the ½ Backhendl mit Erdäpfelsalat (Einstein’s formula for relativity in German?), which was ‘deep fried chicken half-a-chicken with potato salad’ (starting to see a pattern here?). There was also too much Erdäpfel on the table in the end. The chicken was billed as ‘one of the best in Europe’ so we had to try it. Doesn’t have a nick on ‘goreng berempah’ but it was pretty good. Interestingly, it was half a chicken but each part was deboned so we had trouble separating between them. Asians no likey this.   

Mozart Wohnhaus

As much as it wasn’t the charm point of Salzburg for me, I did enjoy my tour around Mozart Wohnhaus, the house that Mozart grew up in, which today doubles up as a museum dedicated to the life and travails of the Mozart family but more specifically Wolfgang’s father, Leopold. Walking through his life and how he fostered one of the greatest musical minds in history was fascinating. He did not complete formal education himself because he found it boring. He instead poured himself into music and read incessantly and he appeared to have a burning desire to nuture a curiosity towards life in his children. In their free time, they played board games, darts and bowling to entertain themselves. Despite not having formal education, he was still considered a highly intelligent man. He wrote Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule, which is still considered today as ‘the’ book for violin playing. It just put a smile on my face thinking that scores of stuffy people hide behind the veneer of classical music as a appropriate trope for their well-manicured life but in actual fact, history suggests that convention was hardly the main course of the day for a lot of these classical music greats. Snark at the punk who dropped out of school? Well, that piece you’re listening to was also written by someone who dropped out as well.

It was also particularly heartening for me personally to see the passion my father-in-law had in drawing context between the places we were visiting and the scenes in which did they appeared in the film. What film? That film. The only Salzburg-related film that is relevant to Asian uncles and aunties. Yes that one. It’s always nice to see older people within our orientation, being excited about something that is not just merely functional in nature. It’s one thing for them to be excited about getting a great deal on a mattress at the local mall, quite another when they appear curious and interested in exploring the sites of a film they loved so dearly in their younger days. Always puts a smile on my face when I see older couples immediately rush out to the dance floor to slow dance when their song comes up. Their bodies may look 60 but look at their eyes, they are 16 again. It was nice to see some of that spark in his eyes. He even watched the film in the plane to prepare himself. We visited the Mirabell Gardens, the Petersfriedhof cemetery and the Nonnberg monastery as a result, as he shuffled from one location to the next like a kid at the aisles of a candy store, arms spread wide, ready to grab everything.

Nonnberg, in particular, left the strongest impression on me. Perched on top of a hill, it still houses nuns today, with its historical structure buffed up by some modern expansions. It has not lost its charm though. I walked into the cathedral within the monastery grounds. I caught it at the perfect moment, when it was empty except for someone who was knelt at the altar. For a brief moment, there I was, in a historically-rich empty hall in a place quite remote from where I am from, observing the intricacies of the structure, I imagined what it would feel like to convene with God here weekly. It was a good moment, but it was not a good moment I can truncate down to a nice snappy reason. I felt a kind of comfort, mixed with a dash of peculiarity – that I was there and no one would be able to take this moment away from me ever again. I took a picture of the cathedral as more of a mental note to myself of the moment. Then other people started walking in and I made my way out to the path just outside the gates. Just as I did, a bunch of Americans, who were perched on one of the lookout points just outside the gate with acoustic guitars and a cello, started playing and singing Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’. The rumble of the cello in particular gaining glorious traction in the airy hills. This culminated with what I had just felt and the gorgeous view of the whimsical city of Salzburg in front of me just made me smile. It’s funny, when I think about my travels, my mind immediately goes to these often scant impressions that may seem nonsensical to everyone else, but incredibly meaningful to me. I quite like that my mind is built this way.

Not that modern day Salzburg isn’t stuffy in some way, despite the punky ways of its musical godfathers. It most certainly is. There is a sense that this is a city, and possibly a country, that hasn’t quite learned to let it’s pretty little locks down properly just yet. I’ve written a lot about the Greeks and how their warmth is a reflection of the weather that reside above them. In that same way, the Austrian people were as apprehensive and cloudy as their frosty months. That’s not to say we encountered anyone who was outright rude to us. Oh wait, there was that bald bastard at Café Tomaselli. Here’s a tip from me – skip that place. Cakes were shit, coffee was tepid and its only saving grace was a wonderful mezzanine floor outdoor terrace that overlooks a beautiful square. Here’s my suggestion, look out your accommodation window instead and spend your money somewhere that isn’t run by stuffy grumps in white shirts draped over black, black hearts.

Salzburg isn’t a large city and it often felt like all roads led to Residenplatz. That intimacy is what makes it a wonderful city to explore. It at times felt like all the important ends of the city are just around the corner or a short walk away. That may not appeal to some but I’ve always been a deeper rather than a wider person (Not talking about central midfielders in a football formation). I need to drill into the bowels of the city to really feel its vibe and to stare at its true face. That’s how I learn to love a city. Not by walking just its pristine streets or merely sitting in pretty cafes. Salzburg offered me a chance to properly explore it, to really feel its vibe, to taste its air and smell it’s scents in a way I did not (later) in Vienna. I appreciated that.

Off to Tirol and Innsbruck.

This is Greece – Athens (Day 8 to 10)

If the Caldera view provided us with a glimpse of the magnitude of beauty Greece had to offer, then the Santorini airport provided us the perfect earthbound-crashing, reality check anti-thesis to that, and probably what we needed before heading to the dense streets of Athens.

My wife was yet again anxious about the amount of time to buffer for our trip to the airport and after bouts of strenuous calculations, she arrived at the conclusion that we should leave our accommodation at least three-days before our flight (just kidding). It was probably two-hours before, but it felt longer. ‘In case there is traffic’, is often the common retort for the often voluptuous buffer. As it stood, the only thing standing in the way of our transfer was the incessant selfie-taking habits of one of our co-passengers. Like, hot pants, obsessive toy-collecting and a pony tail (on guys), there are just some things that are the game of the young. ‘Selfies’ may just be one of them. Actually scratch that, a guy should automatically be maced in the ‘cojones’ if they have a pony tail. The ride took no time at all and we suddenly found ourselves at the airport with a lifetime ahead of us before our flight.

‘We can always sit down and have a drink if we are early’, is the secondary retort that often follows the first if there turns out to be no traffic. This one works better for me. I hardly ever resist an overture to sit down and take my time over a cup of coffee so why not savor one before our flight arrives in 1,538 years?

The aspiration of thousands of Chinese uncles back home …

I spot a cafe outside the airport but the wife thinks it would be better to get into the Departure Hall and find a place to drink in there. Seems sensible. That’s what we often do at airports, just in case it gets slow at the screening stations when someone is slow in removing their laptop, camera, shoes, belt, pants and underwear during screening. Oh, you don’t have to take off your pants and underwear? The hell I would know. At the rate they are going I wouldn’t bat an eyelid if they asked me to hand over my left nut in the future.

So we handed our passports and boarding passes to the smiling gentlemen at the Departure gate and headed into the hall, ready to dunk ourselves into a vat of espresso and break into a jingle. Right? No

For one thing, the Departure hall was the size of the second room in my home. My home is 890sft. Yes, I am exaggerating of course. Actually, it was the size of about five of my second room in my home and there was about a hundred people huddled in there. This is the truth.

There was no comfortable cafe for us to sit at, no duty free stores to browse for a Salvatore Ferragamo eau de toilette. There were plenty of fragrances on showcase though, with the popular one yet again being ‘armpit’. And there may have been a cafe in the left pocket of the ground staff but I did not check. We also found out that our flight would be delayed so we had some time yet to really take in the fragrances around us, properly.

There was not enough seats to accommodate everyone so we had people sprawling all over the place, up the stairs, down the stairs and possibly even the roof. I briefly considered seating in the toilet cubicle. It was pretty chaotic. Updates were not coming through on time on the board, so instead we had to listen out for people literary screaming, ‘Flight to Athens this way’ and we herd ourselves out like lambs. It was funny cause not just hours before, we were serenaded by the sight of romance-filled Santorini and now we are rounded like cattle. Ah nothing like the sound of fantasies shattering.

An ancient city …

We did eventually find a seat at the outer section of the upper floor, but as a result we had to brave mini sandstorms every time a plane rolled in. That and holding on to our seat like our left toes depended on it cause there were throngs of people eyeing each warm seat. This was seriously five-star realism if you want a proper experience on what it feels like to try and flee a war torn country. No stone was left unturned to give us the best experience.

It did bring to mind what a guy that owned a jewelry shop in Oia was telling us two days before about how Santorini was not meant to accommodate these many tourists, ‘It’s because they filmed that Korean movie here.’ I have a theory that most of the ills of the world can be traced back to Ed Sheeran and the Korean entertainment industry. You can check up with me later on that. This airport certainly looked like it was not meant to accommodate this many people. We did meet a lovely American couple while defending the territory that was our plastic chairs. He was in landscaping and she was a nurse. They were also flying to Athens.

The street we lived on …

It greeted us the moment we walked out of Athens airport. What? The sound and soul of a city. I’ve written before that the sounds that emit from the islands, while can be rowdy and noisy, is nothing like the sound a city makes. Here is the sound of industry, of cars battling cars and of people expressing frustration at a stressed-filled life. The melodies of capitalism, so to speak. At rare occasions, a city sings to you, but mostly it sounds like it is just groaning. At least the cities I am familiar with. And Athens sounded slightly familiar.

Athens feels a lot like a Southeast Asian city. It emerges in spots and flashes. The dense city streets with buildings towering closely around tight walkways, giving the impression that it desires to collapse on to you is one way it reflects. The air is also warmer and more humid, with the island breeze struggling to navigate through the crowded streets. The streets are grimy, caked by age-old stains of industrialism, the lack of civic-mindedness and slow maintenance. Everything else moves faster here though. Cars, people, dogs and conversations. There is less time to pause, think and reflect. It smelled and felt a lot like home. It was both comforting and disorientating. I nearly called the guy at the bakery ‘macha’.

But amidst all that, there is a charm that can be seen in Athens. An ancient charm. The city it is today is built on ancient foundations, proven by how The Acropolis remains still the heart of the city, visible at most notable corners of the city. There are sporadic corners of ruins peppered throughout the city, like tomato sauce that’s eager to peek through the cheese on a pizza, Athens’ ancient foundations cannot be properly quelled by the fires of modernisation.

The thing about experiencing the Acropolis, at least for me, is that you are not necessarily staring at something beautiful. It may have been beautiful once, but it’s beauty has long been filed down by the sands of time. It isn’t like staring out into the alps, or Lake Tekapo or the Grand Hall at the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. The wonder of The Acropolis lies in its history and what it stood for during its time. It’s a wonder that requires a little more imagination. There is some beauty in its sheer magnitude but that is unfortunately tempered greatly by years of middle class Chinese business men back home adorning the front porch of their homes with miniature Ionic columns (why lah uncle why?)

That same lack of need to be contemporary that was so evident at the islands, is felt in Athens as well. The branding, prose and aesthetic of the city feels dated, but not in a cool way. More like a ‘I can’t be bothered to spend more money to update myself’ rather than a ‘let’s be vintage’ mindset. People still walk around in mullets and bell bottoms and the signage at most shops looks like they were carved out of the cretaceous period.

The ancient and the less ancient …

In many ways, Athens is like a city equivalent of most of our dads. They are well aware that their time has passed them by but yet they still try to excel at the same tropes that dominated their youth. They were young once but they often act like they never were. Athens knows it is ancient, and it is happy to excel at being just that.

The fascinating for us was seeing how Greeks do in a city, how they live, eat and celebrate life. We had a glimpse of how they do on islands but this was a proper, grimy and slimy city. What would they do? There are no beaches for them to lounge about to display those gorgeous face manes of theirs (the envy is still strong) or bountiful seafood catches for them to dip their fingers delectably into. What would they do without all of this?

Our apartment. What did I say?

For one thing, they stay in higher-rise buildings and shop for furniture in Ikea (sound familiar?), if our apartment in Athens was any indication. So much like an Ikea showroom was our apartment that I half expected a Chinese family to emerge out of the kitchen having tested the quality of the drawers, ‘Good quality wan.’

A bar called Bell Ray provided a nice moment for us amidst the frantic cajoling in the city. It was located just around the corner from our apartment and I believe we hit it on the first night we were there. Me and the wife have a running thread we go to when ordering cocktails – which is that the one I order always tastes better than the ones she does. I am attracted to certain elements and I deviate quite little from them so I rarely end up with a disaster. She on the other hand, loves playing Zorro when it comes to her drinks and she more often than not, finds herself coveting mine. If you are wondering if I engineered to tell this whole background story just so I can tell you that she won this time then nope, she did not. Papa reigned again here.

It was a nice bar though. Casual. Felt more like a cafe than a heavy bar. The kind of place you wouldn’t feel judged if you ordered a Martini or an Espresso. The music being spun by the DJ was nice as well, acid jazz mixed in with a little ambience and smooth electro. That and the bartender looked like Stephen Arnell but sounded like Sean Dyche. If you don’t know who these people are, take my word for it, he was awesome. Basically he should be serving out shots of testosterone instead of drinks with names like ‘Tikki Bob’. That saying I don’t think anyone else in this world can make ‘Tikki Bob’ sound as manly as he did. No, of course I did not drink a Tikki Bob. I drank an ‘Annie and Ben’ instead. Bite me.

Two meals book-ended our meals in Athens, both at different spectrums of dining. The first was a meal at Diporto. If I have been using no-frills to describe some meals in Greece so far, then Diporto took the term and power-slammed it through a roof. The walk to it felt like we were casually going from Streets of Fire to City of God in 500 meters. We passed a grimy market, damp and suspect streets and graffiti adorned buildings before arriving at what can only be described as a building built for the third act of a gangland extravaganza. In fact what eventually convinced us that it was the right building was a piece of graffiti that we saw that also appeared in a Google search of the place. I was resigned to being stabbed by a pocket knife after dessert.

Well, that is if they served dessert. They barely served a meal. This was a stall that is situated in Greece but fashioned out of the streets of Kuala Lumpur. The ‘take it or leave it’ spirit was strong in this one. For one thing the eatery was located at the basement of the building, operating out of a space that can best be described as part-Medieval wine cellar, part Asgardian dungeon. Oh wait, no, the Asgardian dungeon was nicer.

They only had a couple of things on the menu – a vegetable broth, a lentil soup, a chickpea salad and grilled sardines. That saying I’ve always been a lot more drawn to eateries with a scant menu cause it just shows me that they specialise in things. Want to turn me off? Have a menu that covers every dish in the world, and I will probably show you a restaurant that’s not really good at anything. Anyway back to Diporto. Yes, slim pickings but I was intrigued cause the place was packed. On top of that the guy taking orders looked like what happens if Michael Pena encountered a tiger that was picking a fight. He looked grumpy but also rather nonchalant about what everyone thought and did around the restaurant. He came for orders when he wanted to. Spoke when he wanted to. Brought food when he wanted do. There is a sense that not even a Demogorgon could make him do something if he didn’t feel like it.

As it turned out the sardines were some of the most delicious we had in Greece and the wine, which was obtained out of large barrels around the basement, was pretty gritty and rustic. It wasn’t complicated food or flavors but there is a charm about eating at a place like this and ordering the kind of food locals eat as kids in Greek homes. It’s not pretty and it’s not designed for mainstream consumption, but it taste of the land. And that was what made us love this place.

At the other tangent, there was Blue Fish. Not a fine dining establishment really, but they serve pretty intricate and tasty food. I honestly don’t remember much leading to the restaurant because I think I was suffering from a bout of mild heat stroke. I remember my wife leading me through streets, I was a little zonked from some beer I had earlier and I remember feeling parched and hot. It’s at least 20% possible that I may have dreamt this entire meal up as part of some flashback sequence but I just checked with my wife and she confirms that we ate here (phew).

We had a grilled octopus dish, a sea bass tartar with a mango sauce and a red fish dashi linguine. Every dish was truly sublime. The linguine was so good that I can still taste it today. There’s just a joy that springs forth from food that is made with love out of great ingredients. Don’t get me wrong, I get a lot of joy too out of sweating my way through my banana leaf rice at Acha while meat is being dunked into a huge vat of overused oil 10-feet away from me. But this joy is different, more sophisticated and rich. To be fair it is not a joy I feel very often in my life but I am starting to appreciate the merits of it. I told my wife that before I met her, I used to drive autopilot to the nearest mixed rice shop, wolf down a plate of it and go home and cry into my pillow.

But for the most part, Athens zipped by like a blur. Perhaps it is how my mind works these days. It registers less on the forefront of my mind if I experience things that is similar to things I would do at home. Being on the island of Paros, eating fresh seafood and staring out of to an aqua marine ocean is not something you can forget easily. Walking around Plaka, being hemmed in by people and trying to get the best deal for things, while incredibly fun and entertaining when you are experiencing it, seem to register a lot less for me now that I am home.

Not that I am complaining about being back in a city. I’ve found that a city is a good way to cap off a holiday before heading home. Less of a shock, more of a gradual sojourn back to reality. Athens provided that, with its stained streets, graffiti-filled walls and overflowing thrash bins. Oh, and I nearly got pick-pocketed on the way to the airport on our last day. He wasn’t very good. I felt it. I cursed involuntarily at him. I went up the train. Also, we got scammed by a lady with roses that was supposedly pregnant, but I think she was just, overfed. ‘Take me down to the paradise city where the grass is green and the girls are pretty’ Axl said. Not quite.

But yes, it’s time to ‘Take me home’ …