When I can’t find the words or imagery to express how I feel, I turn to film stills. I have hundreds of them saved or screen-captured into a folder on my phone, and over the last year, I’ve watched them gradually turn from quotes about love and loss, to statements about self-discovery, to lines of dialogue about escape in some form or another. (Perhaps it’s a cycle: You lose something of great value to yourself, and there’s a part of you that’s left empty. You try to find something to fill in that void. And if you can’t find it in your existing surroundings, you set out for new ones to search there.)
The need to escape is something many of us feel keenly — an escape from the banality of day-to-day living, from bad company, from a difficult situation, from an uninspiring environment, from ourselves, from all of the above, from all that and more. Some will find that escape in music, or in books, or in binge-watching films and television series and losing themselves in those fictional worlds; checking out of one reality and into another. Some will find escape in creating their own alternate realities. Some will find escape in a bed or in a bottle.
And some will find escape by literally escaping.
“I didn’t know where I was going. I just had to get out of there,” says my screen grab from the 1950s film Sunset Boulevard, saying everything that needed saying about my feelings for Manila and my own life late last year. Many of us who are born and raised in Manila never leave, although there are parts of us that want to. Some don’t leave because they can’t. (Don’t listen to those “quit your job/life and travel” articles if it’s not financially viable. The sad truth is that what they’re selling is an impractical and utterly unrealistic dream if you need to earn a paycheck to survive.)
Some of those who can leave, however, choose not to. It becomes too comfortable; the cage is so gilded, you forget it’s a cage. You grow accustomed to the ease, ebb, and flow of the city and you don’t want to risk complicating something that’s already become predictable to you by striking into the unknown. You know how Manila and its inhabitants work. You know how to navigate it — figuratively and otherwise. You nestle content in Manila’s luxuries, and sometimes they are enough to drive the idea of spreading your wings from your mind.
But the thing about cages, no matter how big or beautiful they are, is that there is a limit to how much you can grow within them. There are those who can accept those limits. There are those who will find that those limits make a once comfortable cage seem smaller and smaller and smaller. Is this all there is? This can’t be all there is.
Is this all I am? This can’t be all I am.
I am one of those people who felt that the only way left to grow was to go. “You can travel the world over, but you still have to deal with yourself,” says a character named Annett in a TV series I’ve never seen called Deutschland 83. I get the feeling this quote is a warning, but not for me. It is precisely myself that I want to find, and funnily enough, I am writing this from Deutschland (Berlin, to be specific), two weeks into trying to do just that.
I don’t quite know how to do that, or what I even came here to do. All I know is that I loved this city when I was in it last year, and it felt like the right environment to lose myself in: open, vibrant, creative, respectful, with a darkness to it that suits me. I am here for the next few months under the guise of studying something I enjoy, but I get the feeling that at the end of this trip, I will have learned more about myself than about makeup application skills. I have never lived alone before, and I am doing it for the first time, halfway around the world from home. I can’t figure out the washing machine to save my life.
“It’s like I’m watching you pluck yourself out of here and plant yourself somewhere else, only to find out that it’s just better for you there, and you’re becoming better by being there,” my best friend writes from home. I am slowly learning the things I need to learn to survive. Apart from a mishap on my first day — locking myself out of my flat — it’s been a quiet life of getting from one day to the next. Setting roots first: turning this foreign, borrowed space into something that feels like home, something that’s mine. Filling my cupboards with things that will nourish, and throwing them together to create beautiful smells that warm my spirit as they fill my stomach.
I am someone who has never been independent, now living in a city that’s built for independence. I’m a stranger among other strangers, and that stranger can choose where she goes, who she talks to, what she eats, and what she does with her time. This far from the eyes of Manila, I need not worry that I’m being watched, that there are any expectations of me; I can choose my own pace, I can make my own decisions, and having the freedom to choose every single aspect of my life for the first time is making me a better and more self-sufficient person. I have never felt like an adult before now, and I am turning 29 in less than a month.
It is a strangely mundane life, quieter than I was expecting, and not as crazy as I thought it might be, but the stillness is a relief. The routine is a relief. There is no race to relevance here, nothing to live up to, and no ladders to climb — just a gentle shift from one day to another, and a train or two to catch to the next destination. Breathing room, and space to explore myself and everything that I love. The time and privacy to slowly discover what it is I can be, as I discover this new city.
An escape from everything I’m supposed to be, running towards everything I just am and can become, but also, somewhere to stop running and just exist. How many of us have ever actually done that?