Oh J


Walking, I discovered, with no sidewalks, doesn’t mean walking at all. It’s going to be a bad romance.

This was my first impression of Jakarta. Yet, despite the fact that it’s definitely not a very a walkable city I decided to go to work by foot. You could say it’s in my blood. Blame it on my wanderlust.

45 minutes. That’s the time I needed to walk from my place to the UNESCO Office. I knew from the very beginning that the dust, the traffic and the hot weather would destroy my enthusiasm. They truly did and I had to make a decision:

Swim or sink. Swim or sink. Swim or sink.

By the time I thought about giving up I realized that I would miss the routine of my walk. It was a simple route but its human side tied me to the streets. It had to be explored. So explore it I did. I kept swimming. I kept looking left and right. I kept eating dust.*

The first thing I did when I left my place every morning was to greet my part-time running/walking Korean companion. After exchanging some pleasantries in the five minutes in which we shared the same path, I was ready to join the chaos. The quietness of my neighborhood was then replaced by the sound of cars, mopeds and other vehicles. It was like stepping into a completely different world. Street vendors everywhere. Some staying in their permanent corners. Others moving their carts to different locations. Each of them selling their own speciality. By the time I reached Blok M, a well-known shopping centre, I would stop there for a few minutes to observe the area’s liveliness, reliving a memory. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between then and now. Amid the mess and the hectic I saw gentle and smiling faces despite the harshness of life, saw solidity in all the movements around me. There it was. There it was. So painfully obvious. So familiar.

Like a lifeline in the chaos.

Jalan Senopati greeted me with more dust, more vehicles and more humidity. The heat was unbearable. There was a time I envied my colleagues for their easy handling of the heat. Whenever we met for lunch or just hang out together, everybody was smiling and chit chatting and I was smiling and chit chatting (or trying to do so) and sweating all the time. By the time I got used to the heat and ultimately stopped sweating I had to leave the country. Anyway, back to Jalan Senopati. It was a challenge every morning to find the right second to cross this street. It took me a few minutes to complete this task while smiling at the regular jockeys. They earned their money from the daily gridlock of Jakarta’s traffic. In order to reduce the number of cars on the city’s streets, the government designated several main roads as “Three in One zones.” During rush hours, people can’t drive to these areas unless there are at least three persons in their car. That’s the reason why people would line up near the zones – raising their index finger – to rent themselves to drivers. One of the regulars on this street was a young mother who carried her baby in a seladang batik. It slept soundly despite all the noise. We never exchanged more than a smile and a “selamat pagi.” It made me feel trapped in my language boundaries.

Almost there. After reaching the other side, I would stop at my favorite street vendor to buy some sweets which served as breakfast. Last stop. I kept walking on the right side, shifting my eyes to the tall and impressive mosque across the street. What a pleasant sight. Covered in white, it radiated sublimity and grandness. On every Friday noon this street would be packed with cars and mopeds and you would see men in their batik shirts, lining up to pray in the mosque. I turned right and went straight into the office. Ultimate destination.

“You are crazy,” one of my colleagues once told me after finding out about my walk.
” It’s okay. Think about the positive outcome.” I said. ” In a few years I might come back and visit you guys and you might not remember who I am.”
” Yeah, that might be true. We have so many interns. What’s positive about it?” She asked.
” Well, you know what I’m gonna say when you don’t remember me anymore? I’m gonna ask: Hey guys, remember me? Walking? Chicken**? I think you would say -yeah, I remember now, you are that crazy girl!”                                                                                  “Yeah, that sounds pretty convincing to me, “she said, laughing at my reasoning.

The heat was still there when I left the office to go home. Same route, different scenery. The streets became, if that’s possible, more hectic and crowded. The same chaos but I was always struck by its immediacy and the hustle and bustle around me. The traffic noise became louder and shriller, mixed with the call to prayer from the muezzin. Together they breathed a strange syncopation; in a way I found it familiar and comforting. It managed to enfold the madness that is Jakarta. It showed me one of those rare and unpredictable moments of connectivity between me and the city. It calmed me.

*Luckily for me, after my return to Europe I had been prodded, poked, scanned and X-rayed to the doctors’ satisfaction and it turned out that everything was fine.

** Another thing that my colleagues teased me about was my fascination for chicken. In fact, I always ordered ayam goreng for lunch simply because it was the only thing that I could eat.

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Ode to Paris 1


Dear Paris,

This is a true story. This is the story of how I got to know you. Frankly, I came to see you with no expectation. Like many other times before, I let randomness take over me. You are no exception to me and I was neither enthusiastic nor exited when I first saw you covered by sober darkness.

Very much to my surprise, you glowed in sunlight. I looked around and saw:

  • Your streets: small, interwoven and curvy.
  • Your buildings: majestic, grand and exquisite.
  • Your people: friendly, eager, sneaking around street corners with fast speed. All of it with the sort of ease and elegance that there was no vocabulary for.

Strangely but pleasantly enough, most of time I spent with you, really spent with you, was when sunset came. Now don’t be mad, I know it sounds like Gil from Midnight in Paris but I’m not Gil even though we have a few things in common:

  • We fancy Ernest Hemingway and the rest of the Lost Generation.
  • We like walking in the rain and preferably at night.
  • We have messy hair and walk around with our heads in the clouds.

I’m not Gil. I don’t need a car to see an older version of you. I walked. At 5 pm when I was done with work I made my way into the unknown. My first starting point for this short tour was Place de Saint-Augustin. From there on I strolled along Boulevard Malesherbes, passing countless trendy bars, shops and restaurants to meet La Madeleine at the end of the street. Tall, imposing and much more of a Roman/Greek temple than a church. There was only one thing on my mind.

Left or right?

Choosing has never been that easy. All I had to do was to choose left or right and whatever I took would turn out to be the right road and the right decision. I opted for right. Ahead of me was Rue Royale boasting with the egalitarian flair similar to what people might find on Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Fifth Avenue or Ginza. All the glory and exclusiveness of a modern metropolis. The end of the street, however, took me to your past. Place de la Concorde was the place where the execution of King Louis XVI and his wife took place. As a high-school student, I was fascinated by the French Revolution and anything involving Marie Antoinette. I spent hours in local libraries; Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman became one of my favorite books at that time. Place de la Concorde was smaller than I had imagined: simple, sparely decorated and designed with geometric precision. It made a tranquil and peaceful impression and there weren’t as many tourists as expected. A woman observing birds. A group of Asian visitors posing for a photo. On the right side across the river stood Eiffel Tower, tall, concrete and resolute.

Time to cross the bridge and turn left. I followed the Seine, walking along Quai Anatole-France. Your constellation of buildings and river reminded me of the way how Berlin’s landmarks are positioned along its river Spree. People can get a similar view of Berlin when they choose Jannowitzbrücke as the starting point to follow the Spree. Back to you, I ignored the urge to visit Musée d’Orsay and turned right for the second time to Rue du Bac. A remarkably beautiful street: long, narrow and fully packed with charming shops, restaurants and bakeries. I killed my time, browsing through them with the idleness of someone free from schedules and time constraints.

I passed many other streets and continued my tour through a number of Japanese restaurants in the Montparnasse neighborhood. They were definitely more authentic and charming than the Vietnamese-run venues that I used to know from Berlin. I stopped for dinner in one of them, watching the cook prepare my food with care and accuracy. Something that I’ve learned to appreciate about Japanese cuisine when I lived in Tokyo.

By the time I reached Boulevard du Montparnasse the streets became more crowded. Wind around me. I kept on walking. It was a clear but icy Tuesday evening, full moon shone through. Ahead of me was a group of Americans asking for direction. It turned out that they were students of architecture, looking for a gallery somewhere in the 14th arrondissement. Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to join them. We strolled with ease, chatting, oohing, ahhhing and pointing at things like kids on their first trip. They reminded me of that time when my friends and I went out for some drinks at a karaoke bar called Hafenbar in Berlin. The music was good that night; people around us singing old German songs. We did our best to enjoy our time together.

And so we danced. Oh boy did we dance.*

There was, of course, no dancing at the gallery. The crowd scared me. There was too much talking but none of the talks was substantial and interesting enough to make me stay. I said goodbye to my newfound friends and walked back to my hotel, which was located near Champs-Élysées. I had no idea how to get back but you were with me. Your lights: my eyes. Your buildings: my compass. By the time I reached my hotel my feet were numb. I slept like a baby.

End of Part 1

* I was the worst. If I remember correctly, one of the bunnies even referred to me as “bốc” that night.