To write, or to retreat.

Just recently I took a 7-day holiday using some of my annual leaves to stay home and write, or a writing retreat, as I call it.

The idea was to withdraw from the routine activities and all worldly connections and take an intensive period of time to focus on writing. I had a clear quantifiable goal in my mind: to finish a short story in 7 days. The result was, I finished the story as early as day 4 and managed to write something more. I was 100% in my own world, stayed out of contact with the outside world, lived a strict and healthy daily schedule, and wrote a little more than 10,000 words. I was quite satisfied with what I have accomplished. But to some extent, that didn’t matter that much anymore afterward. It’s the process that seems more like an accomplishment to me than the story itself. I was feeling something substantial from it, as if I was finally able to connect with a missing piece within myself. When I was going through that 7 days, I knew I’d have to write about it, for no other purpose than to create text evidence of what I have felt. I could tell, it’s something too important to be forgotten.

I started to develop this idea a few months ago. After I was back from Sri Lanka in Feb, I realized traveling probably wouldn’t be an option for a long time. It’s devastating for me, who takes travel as a mental commodity. As the virus spread, my hope of breaking out was dimmer day after another and I knew I’d need to create a holiday that doesn’t involve traveling.

Last year I spent 6 days disconnected in a silent retreat and it was a truly restorative time. My heart was lingering over that for a long time afterward and I secretly decided I’d do it once a year from then. Apparently, it doesn’t look possible now. So I thought, why not recreate that experience at home myself? I was very excited but also slightly scared by this idea.

You must be a little crazy to even think about it. And yet, I have learned to accept my own neuroticism and try my best to indulge it. After the crazy has developed the idea, it’s the rational half of me that had to do her job and started to gauge the possibility of pulling this off. In a silent retreat facility, everything was taken care of. I had food, nature, enough activities and service at my fingertips; all I needed to do was to enjoy all that. At home, I’d need to take care of my own 3 meals a day, arrange my own activities, and resist the distraction in a wifi-enabled small apartment right in the busiest city in the world.

I did quite a lot in planning — I learned a diet which required minimal effort, prepared necessary ingredients and planned a rough schedule of replenishment; I set up an hourly schedule from 6 am to 10 pm to make sure I always have a behavioral compass and wouldn’t end up wasting my time; I carefully arranged how to stay connected in a way I can listen to music and research for my writing while also resist the rest of internet; I made a list of entertainment options, from piano to cooking, from bubble bath to pedicure (I even bought the toolkit for that, but ended up having no time at all for such things). But after all these, until the last moment, I still didn’t know if it was enough planning and if I was really all set for it. After all, it’s not something I have any experience with nor there are existing well-documented references I can look to. It feels like jumping into a well without knowing where is the bottom.

Then I gave myself the final green card: It’s ok if I failed to finish the story. After all, it’s supposed to be a holiday, and I’m supposed to enjoy it. With this re-adjusted mentality, I started my 7-day solo trip as usual. Just that this time, it’s a trip in my mind.

My days went like this. I’d get up at 6 (though I’d usually snooze for 30 mins to one hour…getting up early is really not my forte), have coffee, and meditate 15 minutes with flowing music to slowly wake up in the first half-hour. Then I’d shower and have a simple breakfast. Oatmeal, blueberries, or some convenient packaged milkshake. In the beginning, I didn’t wanna spend too much time on food preparation before I develop a rough idea of my writing rhythm and progressing speed.

Then I’d focus on writing from 8:30 to 12. The story I was writing is one I already have started with during a trip last year but could never find time to finish in the past year. So I more or less knew what I wanted to write, with a fair amount of draft notes to refer to. It was more about putting my mind to it and doing the actual labor work. When it comes to creative writing, or painting, or any kind of art creation, I constantly wonder which is the heavy-lifting part, having the idea itself or executing the idea. I guess it varies for different people and they are equally important for the final work. But this time, I’m glad I mostly only needed to focus on the latter. In some way, I see it as the more challenging part coz writing in a second language usually requires extra effort to get it right, and that is assuming I have what it takes to get it right.

From 12 to 2 are lunch and nap. I’d usually have some carb for lunch — dumplings, fried rice, one dish and steamed rice, etc. Miraculously, without too much thought on it, I managed to do different things for lunch every day. And instead of watching one episode of something on Netflix (as I always do when I eat), I’d listen to music and read Murakami’s essays as I ate. Theoretically, watching Netflix doesn’t break any rules. But I particularly wanted to avoid doing things in my old routine and develop a new routine largely centered around texts and music, the tone I’ve preset for this break.

Murakami’s essay is the perfect light reading for this purpose. It’s never too engaging in a way that it diverts you off the track you’re on, (in this case, is to finish my lunch in a sensible time) while it also makes everything you’re doing seem automatically more purposeful and enjoyable. I love Murakami’s essays, probably even more than his novels. In this break, I re-read his memoir < What I talk about when I talk about running> one more time. In a way, I was purposefully seeking out that calming power in the tone of his essays, which always refreshes and comforts my mind.

Then I’d try to nap for 20 mins or so before I resumed writing in the afternoon from 2 to 6. Throughout the whole time, I’d play light jazz or piano tunes to just have some music flowing in the back of my head. Most of the time, it was either Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis. I selected the music for the same criteria as my reading — something not too engaging but effectively constructs the vibe that I was in need of — classy, delightful, and tranquilizing.

I tried to stop writing at 6 sharp, regardless of how the progress was going. Previously, when I was writing some essays on the weekend, I barely made any effort to keep track of time. I’d continue until I reached a point where either I was finished or I was too exhausted. Often, when I reached that point, I had been typing in a completely dark apartment for hours and it had way passed the sensible hour to eat or sleep. Evidently, that’s not good writing habit and I was determined to change that this time. Hemingway once said you don’t write until you’ve exhausted the last drip, even tho that’s counterintuitive; you always stop when there’s still something left in the fountain so you have enough to start with the next day. I like how sensible it sounds. Though for me, with creative writing, I don’t even think I have that fountain yet. It’s more like I was still restlessly drilling for it with every word I wrote. Indeed, it wasn’t too hard to stop at a designated time.

I’d then do some light exercise as the day transitions into the evening. I alternated between running on a treadmill for 20mins and swimming for 1500 meters. One day, I did fast-walking for an hour along the seafront for a change. Both walking and swimming are very good exercise to keep an active thinking process going. I’d usually take this time to go over some details in my story: is everything on the right track, how to address some specific bits, do I wanna include or exclude some materials, how much progress am I supposed to make next day, etc. It’s rather technical mostly, but sometimes it can get a little emotional too when I really go deep in. Running, on the other hand, is still too painful for me to have any meaningful thoughts simultaneously. I wonder if the day will come that I’d have a sudden surge in my tolerance with the act of running after enough attempts. It feels quite unlikely.

Dinner was always the same — chicken salad. I prepared enough chicken for 7 days and put them in the freezer. So every day it took only 15 mins to make the salad, and that was my most relaxed time of the day. I’d put on happier/funkier music and improvise some hideous dance moves as I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen. Then I’d eat at my coffee table sitting on the rug — my multi-functional station and primitive position in the apartment — with something to read. I picked some random issues of New Yorkers from my hardcopy stash over the years and read the short stories in them. I guess this is one good thing about having print subscriptions — you can’t really do it this way with a digital-only subscription. When I got tired of reading, I just lay back at the edge of my sofa and stared at the ceiling for a short break, with food still in my mouth and music in my ears. It was the moment I repetitively fell in love with, the solid contentment from spending the whole day exactly the way I wanted, with all sorts of things that I find pleasure doing, including the intermittent idleness.

After dinner, I’d play the piano for half an hour or longer. In fact, I played the piano in bits and pieces anytime I want during the day, even writing hours. I was working on a song that I want to do a video with so making slow progress at that did give me a concrete sense of satisfaction. If writing the story is the main dish of the day, playing the piano is the coffee, something equally important that I don’t do without.

I’d move to bed before 10 and write a quick journal in bed, updating my word count log, summarizing my day and jotting down some observations, whatever came to my mind at that moment. At this point, I must say I was usually already exhausted and couldn’t wait to go to bed; I could barely hold my pen straight and my handwriting became hardly recognizable to myself. I thought of how Murakami said writing is more a labor work than a mind work and realized full-time writing, which was more or less I was trying to do, is indeed both a challenge to my mind (in terms of focus level) and my physical strength. I don’t even know why I was so tired. I could fall asleep in five seconds.

When I try to reflect on what this week means to me, what is the “substantial” thing that I felt, it comes to my realization that it’s probably the first time in a long time in my adulthood that I know for sure I wasn’t just frittering away my life. Instead, I lived it precisely how I want it with a clear sense of purpose and a conscious effort directed towards that purpose. Unlike when one was younger, a lot of “purposes” were planted into our minds or we acquired them through external influences, the purpose this time comes solely from within.

For years, I was trapped in a powerless mindset about this purpose, of being a writer, to just write, with no specific agendas. When asked about what’s the thing that I wanna do most, or what’s my dream job, I’d always tell people I’d like to be a writer (a financially free one). I remember one ex-boyfriend asked me this question quite early in our volatile relationship. He was also the first and only one who judged/caught me outright:” You keep saying your passion is writing but I don’t see you doing anything about it at all. “ His words hit me quite hard, I must say, partly coz I knew he was right. I wasn’t doing anything about writing other than talking about it. I was too trapped/preoccupied in the stupid worldly life that I feared touching on the one thing that I love. I thought, what’s the point if I can’t afford to dedicate all my time to it and I’m probably not as talented as I think I was? For years, I had a very unhealthy relationship with writing.

From last year, I bought this domain and started to write more regularly here, this little unreserved private space. In the past year or so I gradually overcame the uneasiness I had with writing, and this 7-day retreat feels like a mirror from a parallel future — it helps me see in sheer clarity what kind of life I could be living and what kind of person I could be one day. I enjoyed every moment of it and I adored the person I briefly was in those 7 days. It happened so quickly and left me with a writer’s blue when I was back in my full-time job the next day, the job that actually pays. But deep down I know, just a transitory taste of it is already worth it.

As I’m writing this, a plain moment from years ago came back to me. I was with the just-mentioned ex-boyfriend and we were having a quick breakfast in a cafe and talking casually. He randomly said, you know, if you really wanna be a writer, I can support you for one year and you just do your writing thing, so at least you have that one year to try it out and see if it’s really your thing. I must have laughed it off at that time, probably a little amused by the fact that he was even offering, as what he was making could barely support his own passion. Thinking back, knowing perfectly it was just a casual remark, I wonder if that’s indeed the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me. Not becoz I’m moved that someone wanted to provide for me, but that he was the only person who took my writing dream more serious than myself.

If this 7-day writing retreat serves any purpose, I think, it reassures me that with enough effort, a lot of things are possible. It’s possible to take a meaningful vacation without flying. It’s possible to go ahead to do something even though it’s not something people would normally do. And it’s possible to keep trying — talented or not — with the best one can afford. Maybe a year, maybe 7 days.

Again, alone in Kyoto.

I spent the past few days alone in Kyoto.

On my second night, when I was pretty tired after a frustrating event (my bicycle was taken away for improper parking) and some revenge shopping, I searched on Google Maps for an Izakaya for some decent simple food and sake, and landed at this super tiny place in a side alley in Ponto-cho which is very easy to miss even with constant Google Maps direction guidance. 

It’s a typical little Japanese Izakaya run by solely one man, who’s also the owner. When I entered, there were two groups of guests sitting by the bar. The master (restaurant owner) greeted me cheerfully with his limited English and put me between the two groups of guests, one middle age woman on my left side and two young women on my right. The master asked me where am I from, I said Hong Kong. And he told everyone else in the restaurant in Japanese that I’m from Hong Kong, and encouraged them to speak English to me. 

He asked me what would I like to drink, I said Sake. He recommended one kind to me, said it’s from Kyoto. I happily accepted. He asked me what would I like to eat, I said anything, small portion, more variety. Since there’s no English menu, he said “ok, I’m gonna prepare some thing for you.” When a man’s life is all about making Japanese food, I simply have no reason to not trust him.

The girl sitting next on my right started to chat with me, her English is not perfect, but enough to make a real conversation and she seemed eager to speak English, which is pretty rare and I appreciated it a lot. She offered me to try their food, their sake, and asked me many questions about myself, Hong Kong, and Hong Kong airport, which is apparently a famous international topic now. 

Through chatting over sake, I learned that her name is Akiko, she’s my age, has a 9-month-old son and is taking a year off work being a full-time new mum. She asked me how do you call it in English, I said probably “maternity gap year”. She was having a rare day off that evening and that’s why she was drinking with her friend and met me. “It’d only happen in three month, how do you say it in English?” I said “once every three months”. She seemed glad to have learned some new expressions. 

Sometimes the master would try to join in the conversion as he was making food behind the counter. When he didn’t know how to say one word in English, he stopped things on his hand and said “wait, I have a dictionary.” And he would open the cupboard behind him and take out a real paper dictionary to check. Together with that dictionary there were also some other simple language books for Spanish, Chinese, French, etc. He pointed at them proudly, “this is my library.” 

The master, Yoshi-san, in his early fifties, came to Kyoto 33 years ago from near Tokyo for university and stayed here ever since. He studied Psychology but has only been working as a chef after he graduated. For the first few years working in a restaurant, he did nothing but sharpening the knife. He didn’t even have a chance to use a knife. Now, he has had his little restaurant for 17 years, working all by himself. 

Everyday he’d wake up at 8am and go to the market to buy fresh material, and come to the restaurant to make some preparations. And then he’d go back home to sleep for a few hours, and come back to open the restaurant at around 5pm, and close after midnight. Do you ever take holidays? I asked. He said, sometimes I take holiday, the first day I rest, the second day I start to think about my restaurant, the third day I just came back to open the restaurant. I love working. “For many other people, their work is decided for them. For me, I decide it myself.”

Akiko left with her friend at some point and I was a bit disappointed. After 20 mins or so, she came back by herself. “I don’t need to go home until 11pm, I wanna fully use my day off.” She bought a pack of cigarette and started to smoke, with more sake ordered. Akiko asked me if I’m married and I told her no, and I don’t know if I will be. She immediately said “I think you’re right.” She told me she really enjoyed being a mother but was not sure about her husband. Sensed her dissatisfaction of her marriage, I didn’t ask more questions. Who am I to be talking about marriage anyways. 

Everyone in the restaurant seemed like regulars here. I asked Akiko if she has been coming to this restaurant for a long time. She said she’s been coming here since she was 16, with her ex-boyfriend. She used to work part-time here even. I was very surprised at that. I can’t think of any place I’ve been still going since I was 16, in any city I’ve lived in. “You must really love it here,” I said. “Becoz of him, he is really nice, to me.” I can imagine that, as a first-timer, I can already feel what a warm person Yoshi-san is.   

Before long Akiko had to go home for real, she told me if next time I’m in Kyoto, I can stay at her house if I want to. “Only if you want to, coz you know, I live with my son and husband. But I have a spare room for you.” As she was paying, Yoshi-san made her a small plate of blueberries. “To clear the mouth,” he said. “She will be back to a mother and wife now.” He said to me, smiling at her. 

At the other end of the bar table sat one guy and one girl, both relatively young. “They are on their first date,” Yoshi-san told me. I looked at them, they look happy and comfortable together, as if they’ve known each other for a long time. I tried to confirm: “It’s your first date, and you end up here?” They laughed and said yes. After a while and a little more communication, I learned that this is where they met, they are both regulars at this little Izakaya. Yoshi-san helped set up this first date after the guy told him he thought the girl was cute.

Before I realized, I had been sitting at that little izakaya for four hours, a place so tiny and hidden that almost no tourist would bump into unless they were specifically looking for it. On my walk back to my guesthouse, I was absolutely tipsy and genuinely happy. The whole evening felt like I just stumbled into a Japanese movie scene, warm, casual, simple, and earnest. Instead it’s real life. It’s real to people in that scene. And even to me, it was real, as temporary as it might be.

Many people have heard me talk many things about Kyoto. This was my 5th time in Kyoto. I’ve been going back every year ever since I visited there for the first time 4 years ago. I’ve been there alone, I’ve been there with a friend, and I’ve been there with a boyfriend. I’ve been there so many times that sometimes my memories got mixed up when I visited a place I’d been before: did I come here myself, or with that friend? or what that boyfriend? Sometimes I could figure out if I think hard, sometimes it’d just have to stay blurred. Sometimes when I looked at those repetitive scenes, even I myself can’t believe that I’ve been there so many times. And even I can’t help asking myself: with all the places in the world, why do I come here over and over again?

Other than the most obvious reasons, the ubiquitous elegance in the city, the sense of history, the secluded temples and the inner peace shortly found there, I guess, the kind of evening randomly spent at Yoshi-san’s little izakaya probably attributes the most to my obsession with Kyoto.

Since the first time I was in Kyoto, I’ve been lucky enough to have met some decent and genuine people living there, each of them with a simple and humble life. A divorced single airbnb hostess Keiko who’s passionate about making clothes and told me buddhism is her backbone. A bartender Takeshi-san who’s been running his one-man-band bar for more than 20 years and insist on only making unpretentious drinks. An Izakaya owner Yoshi-san who’s been devoting all his life to making Japanese cuisine and running his humble restaurant for 17 years, a home-like place to his regular customers. Every time I have a conversation with people living in Kyoto, I feel their earnestness towards life. Their life can be really simple, so simple that you’d almost have doubts: is this really it? Yet looking at how calm they are about their simple life, it’d make you reflect: isn’t this what life should be? On all these people, I don’t see discontent, I don’t see anxiety, I don’t see aimless desires or idleness. I see most people in Kyoto living their simplest lives in the most genuine way. The Kyoto people generates this energy that it always reassures me of what life really is, and reminds me to return to the basics of all.

I guess this is why I kept going back, and I will keep going back, to the adopted hometown of my heart.

P.S. Attaching the casual notes I wrote on my first night in Kyoto this time.

2019 Aug 17
今天再次来到京都,这个我四年前来过第一次后便不断回来的地方。几乎认识我的每一个人都知道,我对京都情有独钟。我常开玩笑说,京都就是我的领养的故乡,尽管我连一句完整的日文都说不利索。然而这次回来,老实说,心情是惴惴不安的。因为去年的京都行是带着前男友C一起来的,以至于在这次行程之前,当时的回忆开始陆续浮出来,我们去过哪里,做过哪些事,那些以为被扫在记忆底层不轻易触碰的东西,随着京都之行的一天天临近,竟然自动开了闸,在脑袋里上蹿下跳。 出发前我已跟Therapist说,我真担心京都就这样被和他一起来过的记忆给毁了。我怕自己会陷入回忆的片段,被伤感的心情吞噬。所以这次来之前,内心的忧虑很大,我最深的害怕是,京都还会是那个带给我无限慰藉的存在吗?

We’ll always have Paris.

I was in Paris, eventually, after a crave of years. When people asked me about it, they seemed eager to get an opinion out of me. Do you like it? How is Paris? While in fact, I think Paris has way passed the line that it needs anyone’s opinion of it, certainly not mine.

I remember wanting to go to Paris for most of my life. Why it didn’t happen earlier, I don’t know. I guess I was waiting for “the ideal person” who I wanna go to Paris with. Silly, but true. I have even dated two French boyfriends, but neither of them made Paris happen. I remember telling myself, there is no rush for it, Paris would always be there. But earlier this year, one day in February when I was feeling an unexplained edginess and desperately needed to please myself, I thought, I’m not gonna wait anymore, I’m going to Paris. I booked the trip in the next twenty minutes. When you’re over 30, you would have learned that for many things, you simply have to make it happen yourself. Even Paris. Especially Paris.

Three months later, on the night I arrived, I took a walk around Le Marais, the neighborhood I temporarily lived at, and feeling “wow”, silently marveling at the fact that I was walking in Paris. It’s indeed quite amazing to still be able to feel that way like you’re a little simple girl when you’re in your 30s. On that evening, I felt like a little girl finally getting what she wants. I don’t even care how corny it may seem. I walked around and saw people gathering in casual groups at bars and restaurants, all looking so lighthearted as if life is nothing but a joyous party. It was exactly what I imagined Paris would be.

I settled at a quite busy wine bar with a great google-maps rating. They didn’t have tables anymore, but I didn’t need any table. The single seat at the far end of the bar was calling for me. I had three drinks that night, two ordered by myself, one ordered by a guy who stood by the bar for a while. He is about my age, manages a gallery in Marais. Do you like your job? I asked. I like it, but I don’t always like the arts I’m selling, he said. He left for parties elsewhere and I told him I was too tired to join. That was when I knew my “little girl” moment was gone; I was back to a 31-year-old woman, fatigued and self-reserved.

Paris is truly an inspiring city, like all other great cities. You don’t just feel that from art museums, you feel that everywhere, boutique stores, corner cafes, avant-dressing transgenders, street singers, metro posters. But art, god, art, it has to be what makes Paris great. Here we have to separate art from art business. I always feel more drawn to the traditional art scene than the modern. In traditional art, you see art. In modern art, you see money and vanity. Maybe I’m being unfair. After all, art, like everything else, is always influenced by money. I’m sure Monet had to worry about money at some point, not to mention Van Gogh. But I wasn’t there in their time. I am here in my time, I’ve seen how art business works in the capitalist world, I’ve seen how people become phony and repulsively snobbish and I really can’t appreciate that. Anyways, I was thoroughly in awe when I was in Musée de l’Orangerie watching Monet’s curvy and large-scale Water Lilies. In the museum of Orange Rice (my French ex told me the pronunciation could mean this way), I felt I was one centimeter closer to what art truly is. Art is, in the most simplified way, simply a repetitive practice one conducts towards something one truly loves and appreciates, like Monet’s commitment to his water lilies, like Van Gogh’s commitment to himself. Their works are only so absorbing because of the commitment invested in them.

After several days in Paris, I felt like I could already move about like a local. I’d become quite acquainted with the metro lines, I visited unknown museums after seeing random posters in the Metro, and I had a go-to bar for a nightcap before I went “home”, the wine bar that I went to on the first night. The bartender recognized me when I showed up the second time. He tilted his head towards “my seat”, and I sat there as he hinted. He barely speaks English, and he seemed genuinely apologetic for that. When I tried to make a casual conversation, he frequently came across words from me that he couldn’t make of. He’d then turn to his colleagues and inquired them. One time, I said “I was too old to go to clubs”, he couldn’t understand and turned to his colleague. After getting what it means, he turned back to me and said, “How old are you?” His colleague hinted him that he shouldn’t ask so bluntly, I laughed and said it’s fine, I’m 31.

Most of the time, he was too busy to converse with me anyway. It was really a popular wine bar, always crowded, evidently appreciated by Parisians. The bartender, also the manager of the bar, told me he had been working there for 10 years. I wanted to ask isn’t 10 years a very long lifespan for a bartender? But then I decided it was too complicated a sentence, and only quietly admired his commitment to this job. I think it’s amazing….some people go on holiday, by themselves, he said, I can’t. I’m always with family or friends. I looked at him, this guy that could barely speak English, and felt bitterly amused. In all these years that I travel alone, I’ve heard a lot of people’s comments about it — they’re usually surprised, sometimes they’d say “that’s very brave”. It was indeed the first time I heard people use “amazing” as a comment, and there’s a chance it was simply a misuse of English words. When I left that night, I told him it was my second last night in Paris. “Maybe see you tomorrow?” he said. “Yes, maybe.” I didn’t go back in the end.

After the first few days of coldness and rain (even the yellow vest protesters didn’t come out on that weekend), there was finally some sunshine on a Monday. I started early, went to the plaza of the Louvre and took some photos and selfies around the Pyramid with all other tourists that didn’t seem interested or brave enough to join the endless queue. I walked from the Louvre to Pont du Carrousel, and from there, watched the remains of the recently burned down Notre Dame from the zoomed-in lens of my iPhone. I crossed the bridge, walked along the other side of the Seine, and was greatly impressed and entertained by the variety of books displayed at those green foldable old bookstalls by the Seine. When I grew bored of that, I went down from one staircase to the riverside and sat on the bank for a while facing the Seine.

I thought of all the romance movies that have featured the Seine in them, from early Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset to the deadly romantic La Fille Sur Le Pont. I thought of all those evening movie scenes and the ambiguous and flirtatious atmosphere emitted through the glistening river surface in the shade of the moonlight. And as I was sitting there, facing the river in the daylight, the yellowish green water which was hopelessly unphotogenic, I saw with sheer clarity the discrepancy between this world and a romanticized world and my position in between. I didn’t feel disappointed, in fact. I appreciate the wateriness in the truth, as much as I appreciate how much effort our predecessors have made in creating a rose-colored filter for all of us so we could have a better vision of this world.

I continued to walk, crossed back to the other side of the river and wandered into Jardin des Tuileries. Everyone in this 17th-century garden seemed eagerly breathing on this bright sunny day. I walked to the fountain and took a seat by it, the kind that let you lean back in a sunbath position. Two seats beside me sat a French old man, feeding biscuits to pigeons. He took some biscuits crumbs from the chest of his jacket and stuck out his palm, waited, in a few seconds some pigeons would come and take it. From time to time even ducks from the fountain pond and crows from the upper sky would come and join the biscuit fete. Not only did he attract birds, but he also attracted tourists. People came close, happily intrigued by how he interacted with his friends with wings and took photos of them. He shared some biscuits with little kids and encouraged them to try.

The old man noticed me as I was filming it and couldn’t help chuckling. I like your shoes, he said. Is there a better opening line than complimenting a girl’s shoes? Life has certainly taught him something, I thought. We started to talk and he told me he had been to China three times. I have a love in China, he said. Is she still your love? He laughed and said, Time passed. But we are still in a good connection. Every year she’d say happy birthday to me. I guess he told me this becoz the fact that I’m Chinese reminded him of his past love. But as we were there, sitting by the pond on a Monday morning, he seemed completely at ease, as if nothing is more important than feeding pigeons anymore in life. I asked him if he came here a lot to feed pigeons. He shook his head. “I came once last month when the weather was good. Yesterday I sat in front of TV the whole day. I don’t worry anymore. I just relax.”

Later that day, after paying a tribute visit to the Effeil Tower (yet not seeing the point) and more art-cramming and time-traveling at Musée de Montmartre, I ended up at Parc de Belleville in the 20th arrondissement to wait for sunset. The 20th is evidently more local a quarter with a heavy hipster and street art vibe. As I arrived at the top of the park with my takeaway wine, I found myself immersed in an agreeable smell of marijuana. I picked a spot on the lawn to settle myself, surrounded by but not too close to other groups of people.

I was perfectly enjoying myself, the 7pm setting sun and the smell of youth, while a homeless-looking Dominican guy came with a broken guitar and sat down two meters from me. He was very likely high on something, eagerly making reckless conversations with people around, especially me. I wasn’t really in the mood of conversing with someone high. Unfortunately, his English is much better than most educated Parisians. More unfortunately, I seemed to be the object he decided to focus on. I wasn’t really responding but he kept speaking to me about stuff, that he is a philosopher, a musician, he writes songs and sings to make a living, he practices a special kind of yoga, he is looking for someone to translate his lyrics into Chinese, he thinks I’m beautiful. My guts told me he wasn’t dangerous, but he still made me a bit nervous. Two young guys sat not too far in front of me. They tried to speak to the Dominican guy in French to divert his attention from me but had limited luck. Another Italian couple on the other side of him then managed to occupy some of his attention, which I felt deeply grateful for. As the sun was slowly setting, the temperature slowly dropping, people were also slowly taking off. When I was getting ready to leave, he said “I’m gonna sing some songs to make some money tonight, probably 70 euro, 80 maybe. I will see.” I didn’t know if he was speaking to himself or me. But out of a rush of curiosity, I asked, where can I hear your music? He seemed to be more awake by then, told me he had only uploaded one song online and taught me how to search for it on Youtube. It’s about a heartbreaking marriage in the past, he said. Most good music is about heartbreaks, I said. I listened to his track that evening and it actually wasn’t bad. At least he was serious about his music, I thought.

On my last full day in Paris, I joined a Write and Wander in Paris experience booked on Airbnb. The experience was led by Sarah, a young French girl with a bookish but pretty face who doesn’t seem to care much about her appearance. She walked with me and another young Argentinian girl around the little-known neighborhood where the Romantic Movement artists gathered in the 19th century, and introduced to us in strong French accent some historical anecdotes of the Romantic Era. From her, I learned how George Sand had an affair with Frédéric Chopin; how Felix Nadar, an iconic pioneer at the very beginning of Photography, took a group of selfies of every angle of himself while one photo would take 30 minutes to make at that time. But what I enjoyed most was still the experimental writing, the creative perspectives she provided for a number of short writing exercises we did throughout the tour. On that morning, with Sarah’s tips and timer, I wrote paragraphs about an imagined internal monologue of Nadar on a postcard, about the ideal Salon scenario in my heart (and thanks to that I decided to throw a small party when I’m back in Hong Kong), about a speech I’d give to my friends at a party I host every Tuesday like people in the Romantic Era, and about nothing but simply automatically write for five minutes without lifting the pen from the paper. I’ve always been very private and protective of my writing process. But on that morning, I felt open and inspired enough to read and share my immature writings with the two young girls with completely different backgrounds and found myself secretly loving it. In some way, it’s the kind of intimate and connected feeling I’ve been missing, the kind that one can only get from spending time with people of similar passions.

In late afternoon that day, I went back to Marais and visited the gallery of the guy who bought me a drink on my first night. He seemed genuinely surprised to see me and showed me around the gallery a bit. It’s a small boutique gallery, but with some interesting works. We had a drink after he closed the gallery and before he had to leave for a theatre show that evening. It was nice in its own awkward way. After that one drink, we walked to République together and said goodbye in front of the metro. As I walked back to my apartment, in hindsight, I realized that was probably the most “French” thing I did in Paris, to randomly connect with someone in a new city and say goodbye in a casual manner without any unnecessary reluctance.

If my personal opinion matters to the slightest degree, Paris is great, it’s all I ever imagined, and perhaps even better in reality. When I was walking in Paris, I found myself couldn’t help wondering, would I really wanna live here? As much as I enjoy almost every moment in Paris (and even the cold rainy days, the compromised communications, the rude metro coordinator and the airport taxi driver that tried to con me didn’t impair my fondness of this city), it’s after all a reality I can’t truly relate to. I dare not to forget I was a visitor to the city. All my perspectives, my experience, my emotions and my attachments, only exist from the identity of a visitor. No matter how happy Paris has made me, it’s the kind of happiness that lacks a bit of weight.

Paris might not be my reality. Maybe it never will be, maybe it never is supposed to be. Though I think I do have taken a piece of Paris back with me. Like Hemingway said, “if you’re lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you.” I guess in my discounted version, I could always look back at my Instagram stories and tell myself, “We’ll always have Paris.”