The banks of the Vistula are overflowing with the weekend crowd. Mostly college students and young working professionals, New York City tells me. The wooden boardwalk is dotted with lights, deckchairs, and the occasional picnic blanket. The river itself, however, is a murky slab of blue-grey. We eventually manage to find two stray seats. With a six-pack of beer between us, we settle in and watch the sky from blue, to yellow, to orange, and to a darker shade of blue.
I had met New York City on my first night here, when he slid into a seat opposite mine at the hostel bar to correct my very poor attempts at Polish. I was with a group of fellow solo travellers – San Diego, Toronto and (another) Singapore(an). In between our first and second beers, he told me that the ‘w’s are actually ‘v’s; and the ‘sz’s are actually ‘sh’s, and if I already knew that, then I wasn’t making that very clear. I had laughed and tried again. Later, we talked about the Balkans, where I was headed to later on in June. He told me about how beautiful the hikes were and goddamn, did I have to try kunefe (a Turkish/Balkan dessert).
We lean back against our chairs, beers in hand. Halfway through the six-pack, he asks me about what life is like back in Singapore. For a moment, I think about how I want to present the place that I grew up in. I do not call it home – this is one of the few ways I deal with caring about a place that is so stubbornly difficult to care about. Suffocating, I say, before going on to explain what life was like for a soon-to-be university graduate. The lack of physical space, and the metaphorical weight of everyone’s expectations. I feel like I’ve been drowning for months on end, I silently add, given the way things had panned out for me then.
He tells me about how similar things are for him, 27 and Polish-American, neither loving nor hating his life very much. The deluge of questions about career prospects and his romantic life, the usual determinants of how well you’d function as an economic unit of society and the like. I nod and say I get it. Not in the learned way that girls are trained to do to soften themselves, but sincerely.
The sun sinks beyond the horizon. We get off the chairs and begin to walk down the river bank. This was the third time I was spending time with New York City. I still couldn’t say I was used to forming connections like this – compartmentalized, unburdened and untouched by any other part of my life.
I tell myself, just because something doesn’t have weight, doesn’t mean it has completely no meaning.
It had started with a small group at the bar, progressed with a bar crawl with him leading the charge (as someone who presumably both wanted to show off and show us his hometown), and ended with us making our way to the hostel’s secluded smoking room. The rest, as they say, was as much history as you can claim about two passing ships in a Warsawian night.
We eventually walk by a bar with a semi-alfresco dance floor. It had everything you’d expect from something so heedlessly impractical yet so enticing in the twelve degree weather. A rustic looking wooden floor, a ceiling strung with fairy lights, and a restaurant worker masquerading as a DJ by some sound equipment. Obviously, New York City gestures to the establishment. Obviously, I say yes.
When I think back on this part of my trip, I sometimes wonder why I did any of it at all. But I do know why, and I make no apologies for any of it. For saying yes to drinks with a stranger, for being brazen, and for being the kind of person I am not allowed to be where I live.
A lot of people say that travel life isn’t real life, and to some extent I agree. It is a part of life separated from the rest of the ‘real world’, where you have little to worry and fret about; where you live a version of yourself that is so detached from every other version of yourself you’ve wanted to pretend doesn’t exist. When this ends, you do pack your bags and go home. But what comes back with you is the yearning for that freedom again. To know and to have affirmed that the world is larger than the cramped corners most days present you with.
You remember the nights you spent out, the rush from the novelty of a new city. You remember walking the streets in the day, feeling invincible because you bought the lie you spun trying to look like you were. You remember the rush of satisfaction that came from locals recognizing your (albeit horrible) attempts at learning their language. The nights of karaoke and Jenga at a small hostel bar, mutually hating on New York (the city) and London, the final hug of departure in the morning, and the wave of texts that come over the next month that eventually peter out some time between Kosovo and Tirana. You remember taking the warm, extended hand of the world and saying yes.
But what sticks out the most is feeling the way you’ve needed to for the first time in forever, and how you’d do anything to feel it again.