The Topographical Soul


First Person

I was at the last show of the night in a movie theater in New Orleans, and I stepped out midway to go to the bathroom. The movie was loud, cacophonous, upsetting—a documentary about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. As I peed, I stared absentmindedly at a tile in the wall in front of me.

There was nothing remarkable about this tile, but I felt an involuntary shiver. I was alone in the bathroom, but it occurred to me that the bathroom itself had once been alone and empty—for days, weeks, maybe months during the hurricane and evacuation. It had been frozen in time like the figures in Pompeii but without any bodies to be captured in mid-life, mid-gesture. Instead, what had been captured, what resonated, was a stillness that persisted even now, after the city had ostensibly come back to life.

Cities are not meant to be emptied. Most of them never are. Even in their quietest hour they have a rustling sense of breath. But I had once spent time in another city that had also been emptied: Phnom Penh, which was evacuated under the Khmer Rouge.

Phnom Penh was, from the moment I saw it in 1994, a place that refused comparison. At first I accepted this. I had come for new experiences and I was happy, if often unnerved, to let new experiences prick me with their unfamiliarity. But then I began to feel a certain resistance in me, an effort to corral all the stimulation and make it adhere to a context with which I was familiar. I was trying, as I always did, to see Phnom Penh through the lens of my hometown, New York.

But there was no Upper West Side in Phnom Penh. No Central Park West. No Soho or West Village. No Empire State building, or H&H Bagels. There was a river, but unlike the Hudson, the Ton le Sap fed from a giant lake, and twice a year it changed direction. It was an ambivalent river. The Hudson, I felt, was consoling; the Ton Le Sap was secretive. Also, it had an alter ego, the Mekong, which from the promontory of the Foreign Correspondents Club, my preferred view, was hidden behind an island.

In Phnom Penh I abandoned myself to disorientation, but I expected it to come into focus. I expected that eventually I would begin to see the correlations between the landscape on which I walked and lived and the landscape that I carried within me—New York, Manhattan, the grainy black-and-white asphalt, the gray octagons that ran along the edges of the city’s parks, the facades of the apartment buildings. New York was a dense musical notation I had internalized, every inch, every hill, every pothole. In Phnom Penh, I waited for what my eyes saw to correspond to this inner resource. It never did.

What happened instead was that I drew a new map. It took a while. My first visit was in 1994, then I returned in 1995 and 1996. I rented a scooter and rode it everywhere. The great flâneurs get around by foot, but I require two wheels to fully imbibe the rhythm of unfolding neighborhoods.

Phnom Penh was a two-wheeled city. There were cars, but they waded through the throng of motos (as scooters are called), bicycles, and cyclos (which have three wheels and a driver), like irritated oxen shouldering their way through flocks of oblivious birds. I drove with the curious combination of caution and abandon that was characteristic of everyone there. There were, in 1994, two functioning street lights. Otherwise the traffic was governed by traffic cops, who were ornamented by the finery of a military uniform and stood on a circus master’s platform—a dented cylinder with faded red and yellow paint—making hand gestures with white gloves. We all paused in respect for these commands, like a flock alighting. Turning left required you to slowly drift into oncoming traffic, inching further and further to the opposite curb, so that by the time you reached your intersection you slithered around it. I remember the way certain boulevards would open up, lined with oak trees. The French style asserted itself often, never more so than with Independence monument, with its echo of the Arc de Triomphe. Careening around that roundabout I always felt a thrill and wanted to laugh.

Once I made the initial connection between New Orleans and Phnom Penh, I started seeing other correspondences. They are both lush, tropical cities, prone to lashing rain that ends as fast as it starts. They are the setting for epic puddles. In the civic culture of both cities there is a hint of the misunderstood victim and also the complicated ego that comes from being on the receiving end of charity. New Orleans, in the aftermath of Katrina, felt profoundly abandoned by the rest of the country. In Phnom Penh, the feeling was more complicated, and considerably darker, but there was also a sense that the eyes of the powerful were elsewhere.

They are both cities recovering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and also cities filled with an unabashed mirth. At least the Phnom Penh I saw in 1994, 1995, and 1996, which was chock full of young children, was rife with laughter. It was a lovely, bright kind of melody that counterpoised with the terrible poverty—it wasn’t all laughter, obviously—and, more subtly and maybe ominously, with the fact that there seemed to be so few old people around in comparison to the young.

Both New Orleans and Phnom Penh have been strongly influenced by the French. Both are nestled beside famous rivers—muddy, meandering, carrying freight, tourists, party boats, mythology.

Both are cities where I am most comfortable feeling like a stranger. I spent three months in Phnom Penh and then went back twice in successive years, just enough to pretend it was more that a visit; I moved to New Orleans in 2008 but leave in the summer and usually during the winter break, just often enough to pretend it’s an extended visit.

After this unlikely pair was established in my imagination, I began to wonder: What does it mean that in traveling to new places we always yearn on some level for the old places? Is it nostalgia? Separation anxiety? Maybe it’s that we all have an internal map we consult no matter what the terrain. This map corresponds to places and to emotions; it’s a way of accessing personal history and integrating it with the present.

When I was in Phnom Penh I thought it was like the moon, a place completely unfamiliar. What I saw would never translate back to the rest of my life but would rather adorn it, like a souvenir—as the poet David Berman wrote, “Souvenirs only remind you of buying them.”

But in New Orleans, years later, I realized I had held onto more of Phnom Penh than I knew, that my point of reference had expanded. Now Phnom Penh, once the strangest and most forbidding place I had ever set foot in, had somehow come to occupy that privileged role of being on the internal map, a touchstone and point of reference, a place you could, in some strange way, even think of as home.

Thomas Beller is the author, most recently, of a collection of essays, How to Be a Man, and a novel, The Sleep-Over Artist. He teaches creative writing at Tulane University.