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Is it possible to ever say goodbye to New York City?

The past two weeks, I have been gaining weight from all the brunches, lunches, dinners, coffees, mid-lunches, desserts and other invented rituals as I say “So long!” to New York once again.

This is the sixth time I am leaving a country, so by now, I know the drill. Moving to another country is quite different from moving to another state; it involves immigration papers, customs, another currency, language, and time zone. Life has gotten simpler the more this happens to me. Two years’ worth of stuff have been packed in three boxes and shipped. I don’t accumulate much anymore.

We all have our quirks. For me, it’s saying goodbye—it’s important to say goodbye! It marks the passing of time, of “properly” saying thank you for being a part of my life, whether voluntarily or otherwise. I have had rituals that were very traditional (dining out), adventurous (climbing a mountain and hiding a pepper plant in a castle for my friends to hunt for), and nonexistent (I once just left without notice). All have had different results. For this time, I think I prefer the simple ritual of having a conversation—the last one I will have with them face-to-face for a while.

It’s not just about the ritual, because it’s always good to get together with friends. Each move represents a switch, violently or not, of career directions and personalities. I’ve been a research scientist, a human rights something-or-other, a journalist and an editor, an artist and a poet, and an interaction designer. I’m quite curious (and clueless) as to what will happen to me on this leg of the journey now. And because of the chronic change, usually when I say farewell it does mean the end for most of the people I have known, who will likely never have a reason to reconnect with me ever again, who may at one point shake their heads, wonder, and go back to the anchored desks of their (relatively) stable and mortgaged lives. Sometimes, goodbyes are heartstoppingly lonely.

But they also have their entertaining side. Just what is it with farewells that makes people say the juiciest things to me? I’m quite positive I would never have heard a lot of these “confessionals” otherwise. It’s no wonder that travelers turn into storytellers in one form or another; one by one, the people I leave behind keep spilling their guts out without me having to prompt them. Amidst all the Thai lunches, American breakfasts, Japanese dinners, and English teas, I have been privy to the hidden lives of friends and colleagues alike. The secret identities, the love affairs, the hidden longings are all revealed to me like a discontinuous soap opera or graphic novel. It’s almost like they think of me as a bottle in which they can keep a message, to be tossed into choppy waters and never to be seen again, except maybe for the stranger who will pick it up on the other side of the ocean. Perhaps then I can whisper that secret, and create a legend out of that piece of gossip. Sometimes, I think they want me to.

The stories I have collected over time remain with me, long after the memory of the place has all but vanished. Sometimes, stories are all that I carry.

To say goodbye means to die a little inside, because I feel that I am leaving a part of myself behind in all the people I have met and cared about. And so once more I feel a bit lighter, a bit rootless, a little sad, but indescribably happy that the two years have meant oh so very much.

Is it possible to ever say goodbye to New York City? Nah, I’m sure I’ll see you all very soon.

For everyone I have met in NYC on this round. 

Due to my fascination with smell and its relationships with memory, I wrote and published a book that contains smells from Manila, New York and Barcelona—three cities I have lived in and have given me a lot of memories.

Each spread contains the memory on the left and the actual smell micro-encapsulated and printed on paper on the right.

Here’s one from Manila:

Burnt rubber
On busy streets
Particularly EDSA
The site of many a revolution
You can smell the worn tires.

Here’s one from New York:

Pumpkin pie
My first ever pumpkin pie was in 2007 on a martial arts retreat.
I remember not just the pie, but the knife lessons. We had a meditation room and went to a cemetery. We broke arrows with our throats.

Here’s one from Barcelona:

Strawberry
A birthday picnic for Harriet, up on Montjuic but closer to the museum. We wrote poems on a green Olivetti typewriter that we decorated with wildflowers.

Here are some people smelling my memories:

More photos up on Flickr.

I realize that through many years of living elsewhere, I’ve noticed things…more. As the years passed, my mind automatically latches on to what at first seems inconsequential, but eventually holds something of reflective importance.

Poetry is the bastard child of wanderlust. When one has many versions of what is “familiar,” one can generate a different perspective of the most mundane of things. Two weeks ago, I glanced up on my way out of my apartment, and noticed a bunch of balloons trapped among the branches of a tree. This isn’t the first halted balloon flight I’ve seen, yet by the nth time I see it, I now view them as a symbol of a dream whose flight got killed in midair—a tragedy, a loss. I begin to imagine the story behind it: the child to whom these balloons probably belonged, if he was sobbing, if he had his mother to cry to, if this was a significant character-building experience. I begin to imagine the story after it: what if pigeons untangled the balloons and let them fly, what if someone shoots at them with arrows, what if birds turn them into a nest, what if they get untangled eventually yet fall limp to the ground and someone refills them with helium so they can fly again. And so on and so forth.

Same way out the door on a different morning, and I see a flock of pigeons grouped together, lying in wait in a line. I recall Pablo Neruda’s poem, Bird, which begins:

“It was passed from one bird to another,
the whole gift of the day.”

I notice a lot of humor, too, in the sometimes punishing streets of New York City. Ironically, or perhaps intentionally, a beauty salon was just around the corner. The chalk marks read, “The cruel hand of fate could use a manicure. —Elbowtoe.”

Walking home from taekwondo one night, a friend pointed out a birdhouse hanging from a tree branch. A few days later, I came back on an afternoon and took a photograph:

I took another photo, this time showing it across the Hotel Chelsea. Because of its controversial history, I’ve always associated it with death and the macabre, and so having a brightly painted birdhouse, which recalls life and hope among other things, seems an evocative contrast to see, here in the city of many contradictions.