The travel exhaustion and jet lag is fading, and even Ethel seems relatively comfortable with this new city, this new apartment, and this new daily existence. It’s exciting because it’s new, but it’s also exciting because it’s so damn vibrant. It’s winter in Hanoi, ostensibly the darkest and coldest time of year, and yet this place is alive in a way I’ve never experienced anywhere else; sensory overload which toes the line of overwhelming.
We drink great coffee and eat delicious food, and walk a lot, exploring neighborhoods I remember well but which have changed in the four years since I lived here, and which are entirely new to Andrew. We’ll buy a motorbike shortly, making at least some of our transportation destination-oriented, but for the moment we have been content wandering the city by foot, coming home sore and a bit grimy but happily exhausted.
It occurs to me that this is the first time I’ve ever moved somewhere without an end-point in mind. College, semesters abroad, research trips, graduate school…each of these has come with the knowledge that there are particular goals or markers to reach, and that my time in that place is constructed around the achievement of those goals and markers. I have things to do while I’m in Vietnam – independent study credits and other obligations make sure of that – but we moved here to be here, and no more. I want to call it a “grown-up” thing to do, it feels grown up…but this is probably only true in the youthful idealizations of grown-up life that we have before the reality of bills and jobs and sofa-set payment plans and preschool wait lists and ten-over-thirty mortgages set in. I’ve found the glimmer of grown-up-ness that I’ve experienced, so far, to be a lot less awesome than it seemed when I was young and excited about my pending independence.
Except…now Andrew and I have moved to a city for the purpose of living there. It’s not an extended holiday or a research trip or one of the “do it while you’re young” adventures that people so regularly praise me for embarking upon. I find it singularly difficult to respond to this sort of remark, because it implies a second clause that the speaker would probably intend to sound something like: “because pretty soon you’ll want other things; a family and a home and a job with a 401k, and having been on this adventure will inform the person you’ll eventually become”. That second clause, however, feels more like: “ because pretty soon it’ll be time for other things, serious things, two kids and a mortgage and no more time/energy for dreaming and international adventures… and at that point you’ll want something positive on which you can look back”. We’ve moved to this city for the purpose of living here, and while it isn’t necessarily my intention to live here forever, it is my intention to live here for an indefinite period of time, determined almost entirely by a love of this place. This is to be followed by another place, again determined almost entirely by an interest in experiencing that place, and so forth. So while peers experience grown-up-ness marked by the selection of a home based on things like school district quality, and great swaths of society seem to relate grown-up-ness with being tied to a place (houses and social scenes, physically and emotionally), this trip symbolizes a grown-up-ness marker of a different sort. I hope that in 20 years I’m still raising a glass to a life determined by an excitement for new places, for new languages and cultures and foods …because you can be damn sure that’s what we’re toasting to now.
So this new life is about self-determination, about doing the things we want to do and being the people we want to be. Easy, right? No! Not at all true! I find that I’m much better at fretting and slogging away at things that need to be done to achieve a goal than I am at enjoying the achievement of that goal without setting my sights (or worries, more accurately) on the next step…better at worrying than at being. Andrew has his own difficulties, similar in that there are ideals and goals of who and how he wants to be, different in the details themselves. The solution that we are testing (because this is basically an experiment in how to construct our own versions of happiness as grown-ups) looks very much like the life of a writer in Paris in the 20s, minus a bit of the risqué lifestyle (read: alcoholism and STDs). A Moveable Feast informally outlines the schedule for a productive day, and without necessarily intending to, ours isn’t far off.
- 7:30/8:00 – Wake up. No alarm necessary, even in the middle of the city neighbors inevitably have chickens, and thus roosters. Urban chickens are as trendy here as they are in Madison’s hippiest neighborhoods, or more so. Ethel’s patrol of the neighborhood commences, a job she takes seriously regardless of the city, state, country, or continent on which her neighborhood exists.
- 8:00-11:00 – Work, loosely defined. For Andrew this means writing, for me it is research, but we find a comfortable spot on the couch and work, drinking French-press coffee (the press and favorite mugs carried from Madison) and having a bit of yogurt, fruit, or leftover rice to tide us over. Ethel is inevitably sprawled between us or on one unlucky individual who then must attempt to work with her snout lying on the track pad and her snores disrupting trains of thought.
- 11:00/11:30 – After a short walk outside for the beast, we embark on a walking or motorized adventure. Wandering through the Old Quarter admiring the decomposing French colonial architecture, driving out into the countryside, visiting a museum/library/historic site, getting on a random city bus and exploring new neighborhoods…all possibilities. Vietnamese coffee (served extremely strong and in small quantities with condensed milk and a single ice cube) and a bit of reading in a rattan chair as the world passes by…no day would be complete without it.
- 11:30-12:30 – Lunch, out. Banh cuon, pho chay, mien rau…plastic stools at sidewalk restaurants serving food made on the spot with produce that was in the ground 20 hours before. Nothing is refrigerated, nothing is processed, and nothing costs more than $2.
- 12:30-2:30 – Resume previously mentioned adventure.
- 2:30/3:00 – Return home. A game of Scrabble or more reading, a glass of wine or cocktail to sip, and a bit of relaxing.
- 4:00-6:30 – Work some more. Prep for class (Andrew), or read/write/code (Cristina). If it’s an evening Andrew is to teach, a quick dinner at home, off to school for him and the resumption of work/reading for Cristina. Note: some of this is pending, since Andrew hasn’t yet started teaching and thus gets more read/write time than he’ll have when the acclimation vacation comes to a close. If not:
- 7:00-8:30 – Dinner out, with friends or the two of us.
- 9:00/9:30 – Home for reading/scrabble, or meeting out for a nightcap. Bars/pubs open to the warm evening, with tables that overflow onto the sidewalk and allow for people watching and conversation, are preferred.
Not bad, all things considered.