New neighborhoods

Almost three years into our Hong Kong life, we contemplate moving. It’s a small contemplation, that of leases ending and the option to choose. Should we, so happy in this small set of streets, venture forth, change these neighbors for new ones, and learn? Should we, cut off from foreign travel, take the time and money instead to fancier spaces, to newer buildings?

We don’t know, and thus, on weekends before frisbee, after chores, we explore. In our usual fashion we wander places that are either centrally located, geographically, or metro stops that would be in between. The type of neighborhood, the closest grocery store, the heat island situation, are what we wander to discover. We look for where we’d shop or where we’d eat if returned from sports exhausted. How long would it take us to walk somewhere with cheap noodles, how long would it take us to get to a park for a late night run? These are specific questions, and come second to our need for MTR access, for short work commutes, and for the ability to walk everywhere.

In so many ways we are products of our neighborhoods, chosen at more or less random, with more or less luck, over and over again. In Shanghai I picked the French concession due to the stories I’d read before I knew what a map of the city looked like, before I knew what quarter was what. The leafy streets of Jianguo Lu that dominate my memory are so more by chance than anything, driven largely by the proximity of friends and easy commutes. The daily electric scooter rides were a product of the city’s topography and the availability of technology.

In Houston we lived within longboard reach of Rice, the apartment chosen for commute and friends again. The leafy streets and easy bike rides to groceries were benefits, and welcome ones.

In San Francisco the first time, without jobs, we chose for price and the presence of Asian faces, for the comfort of the fog and the park. For perhaps the only time, commutes didn’t factor into our thinking other than to be on a muni line, in this case the ever unreliable N.

The second SF house was driven by our desire for a cat, by the need for a garage, and a poor attempt to balance two forty plus minute car commutes in opposite directions. The house treated us well despite those constraints, and those are good years in my memories.

The third and final SF spot, driven again by our changing commutes, was at last downtown near the train. With rooftop and garage it remains a high point, windowed and central to everything. For four years we cycled everywhere, or ran for the train.

In Hong Kong we are happy, we are settled, and we are still curious. Will we move? Change is good to consider, especially in these quiet years.

Bagels and milk tea

The good parts of life are important to note. We live in a tiny, walkable neighborhood with food, with community, with street life and diversity. There are noodle shops, half a dozen local breakfast places, ramen shops, car repair spots, a vet, two pet shops, a plant store, two grocery stores, and two fruit stands. On a Saturday morning, after coffee, while Tara sleeps, I pull on flip flops and walk down to get fresh bagels from the French bakery. The coffee shop downstairs is full, early morning runners and cyclists just starting to yield to the families and friend groups that will dominate the rest of the day. I chat with our Singaporean neighbor as we cross the street, each headed out for light errands.

The bakery has a small line, two people waiting for entry into the tiny storefront that supports the bakery behind. The smell of fresh baked goods is strong and the bagels, ten minutes from the oven, are still warm as I carry them back towards home. I hand over our metal cups to the outdoor stand for iced milk tea, the staff familiar with this ritual and happy to see me. I’m happy too, part of this neighborhood and relaxed. Weekends can be wonderful. Free from work and free from destinations my mind finally relaxes, able to appreciate the small buildings and narrow streets, able to listen to the birds as they swoop in for crumbs and cackle on wires overhead. It’s a beautiful morning here in Tai Hang, the air clear despite the humidity in late May. Between the buildings the hills are lush and green, and the world feels alive.

It’s good to remember the better days.

Empty windows

As always, things end before we were really ready. Returning from a month abroad, we find our living room faces a newly empty apartment. Across the street the walls are bare, save for a horse painting. It will be left for the next tenant. The curtains that had obscured the kitchen are gone, leaving a clear view of the small space two women shared for the past two years. The apartment looks both larger and smaller, in the way of these things, with all their furniture gone.

We wonder where they’ve moved, these women we never spoke to but shared some slice of life with. For two years we have seen them come home late, the lights often going on at last at eleven pm, work finally over. We’ve watched them host dinners on Friday evenings, welcoming a handful of friends with wine and laughter. Mostly we have seen their cats, and they ours, as the animals watched the world or lay on the dining tables that face each other across the small street that separates our buildings. For two years we have shared the occasional wave and the knowledge that we are not alone, that despite the lack of communication we are happy to see each other, happy to watch the cats grow up.

And now the apartment is empty. For us, returning home after travel and quarantine, the loss is instantaneous and the shock unexpected. Out of all our neighbors, the cluster of shared windows and barely visible lives, they were the two we appreciated most, two women and two cats. We miss them, and wish them good fortune. For ourselves, we wish for neighbors with cats, and we wonder when we’ll see those lights go on again.

Looking down

Los Angeles from above, at night

Denver comes into view. Los Angeles comes into view. Oakland comes into view.

We sit on the porch in Colorado, people taking turns playing the guitar. We sit on the deck in Oakland telling stories of the past year and discussing chickens. We sit on the beach in Los Angeles and talk about learning to throw and to hit.

You called all the way from America” Joan Armatrading sings, as I drive 580 to meet an old friend. It can feel so far away.

Lifting off from Hong Kong after midnight the lights are muted but the city still bright. We pull up through the clouds and into darkness, amazed to be in flight. It has been some time.

Swimming in a pool with a friend’s seven year old I dive deep into the clear water, hunting colored plastic rings. He beats me to two of three and I am happy, surfacing to the bright Malibu sunshine and a view of the other side of the Pacific. Home is that way,” we joke, hanging on the pool’s edge and pointing west past the horizon. The gesture is a simple definition of distance, something everyone can grasp. Yet we are comfortable here, on freeway and in pools, in a way hard to remember from far across the ocean.

In an Oakland back yard I watch twins chase Tara around, and her them, in small circles. These are old friends, and younger ones, and we are glad of hours in each other’s company, with each other’s memories. There are good times to revisit, on beaches far from here, and sad times too. It’s been a year.

In another backyard some of our beach frisbee team reunites. They have all moved since our last visit, out of San Francisco to these hills and others. We are glad to sit and share tales of fires, of houses, and of children. There may not yet be disc to reunite us on a beach but backyards and hot tubs are more than enough.

In Colorado the house is clean and the puppies now old dogs. One limps slowly in and out of doors, following the humans he adores. He’s done well to survive to this visit, more than two years since the last. We are grateful to all be together, to show new songs learned in the time apart and hear old favorites once again.

And as we descend each time to new cities, to old haunts almost forgot, I marvel again at the ability to be aloft, to look down on the world and recognize even small spots from above.

California light

Sunset towards Malibu

Sitting in the hills north of Los Angeles, looking over the Pacific, the light seems both too harsh and too perfect. My eyes struggle to adjust to the brightness of air without humidity, or a sky without clouds. Along the horizon to the south the smog of downtown shades the air brown. In all other directions the sky is the particular light blue of southern California. As usual, it is both hot in the sun and cool in the shade. After two months of summer sweat and air conditioning in Hong Kong, leaving the patio doors swung wide is a glorious feeling.

We are once again on the move. For the first time in twenty twenty one we have crossed a border, boarded an airplane. For the first time in twenty twenty one we are in the company of old, old friends. For the first time in twenty twenty one we are on vacation. The combination is a wonderful feeling. Driving up the coast last night, working hard to do simple things like lane changes correctly after a year and a half abroad, we marveled at how comfortable we are here, on the southern coast of California, where neither of us are from and where we have never lived. We are comfortable here, on the PCH, precisely for that reason: it’s always vacation.

There’s a glory to returning to a vacation spot, to well-known restaurants and streets, to old friends and familiar beds. It’s an easy trigger for the body, which relaxes so quickly in these comfortable surroundings. Arriving, we chat with our hosts in the quiet dark of the house before all heading to shower and bed. We are so much more comfortable than we’d been, two dozen hours before, still exhausted from the work day and barely finished cleaning and packing.