Searching for Bohemia
“The poor, but free spirit, plebeian but aspiring only to be classless, to cut himself forever free from the bonds of the greedy bourgeoisie, to be whatever the fat burghers feared most, to cross the line wherever they drew it, to look at the world in a way they couldn’t see, to be high, live low, stay young forever — in short, to be the bohemian.” — Thomas Wolfe
Look, I blame Baz Luhrmann. I was young and impressionable when Moulin Rouge! came out. Just as I’d almost gotten over those fantasies, the film adaptation of RENT hit cinemas in 2008. The Bohemian Revolution invaded my heart and squatted there, boarded up the doors and blasted accordion music if ever asked to leave. To this day, every clichéd fantasy of a free, raw, penniless world of creation and beauty still throbs in me like a toothache. I’ll still tell you heaven looks like the attic jazz jam finale from The Aristocats, with fewer cats and a few more cigarettes.
As long as I can remember, all I’ve wanted to be was Bohemian: a vagabond rabble-rousing bleeding-heart free-loving wonderer wanderer creator. Not a hipster, not a burner, no fads and no pretense. Sophisticated and disheveled, sparkling like the stars and never like diamonds. Bohemian.
As a teenager, walking the streets of suburban San Diego, my mind was always far away: in Parisian attics and New York lofts, German speakeasies and Indian train rides. From falling in love with the Dresden Dolls’ punk cabaret to seeing myself reflected in Woody Allen’s Spain-infused neuroses, all mirrors showed a unacceptable lack of Bohemia around.
Freedom and expression, sensitivity and depth, grunge and grit — the rough-hewn, fire-blown, Romantic with a capital R Utopia raised in seedy alleyways and underground concert halls, laughing in the prudish looks of the mainstream: This is what I seek. Bohemia — a phantom and a fantasy, a muse and a siren, an escape and an addiction.The only roads worth taking are the ones that lead there.
Growing up, it was the only place I wanted to be. Wherever it was, it wasn’t in San Diego.
“Musicians, painters, writers. They were known as the Children of the Revolution. Yes, I had come to live a penniless existence. I had come to write about truth, beauty, freedom and at which I believed above all things, love.”
— Christian, Moulin Rouge!
At seventeen, what I knew about Bohemia was that it was probably in New York. Well — it was probably in Paris, but New York was closer. I knew that it had tattered Persian rugs and stacks of books piled high in the corners. I knew that there were turn-of-the-century lamps and candles and Christmas lights strung around. Bongo drums, saxophones, written scrolls with feather quills. Someone would be speaking French. There’d be a phonograph and dusty bottles of whisky. In sum, Bohemia was antique store with a folk punk concert in the middle.
I was ready to fall in love with New York. On the plane there, I thought of how different it would be from home. The streets alive with music and the people from everywhere, with smells and sounds and colors and life puffing up from sewer grates in the sidewalk.
I quickly learned that Bohemia was not in Morningside Heights. The Village seduced me, but by the time I found an affordable room nearby, it was above a precious café with $6 cupcakes and lavender lattes. Though it stirred at the Nuyorican, Bohemia was nowhere in Manhattan. When I got to the East River, it had receded past Williamsburg.
In London, not knowing better, I tried Shoreditch. The cobblestones of Brick Lane and the Nomadic Garden and the fogged up café windows called to me from Google images. “It’s here,” they said, and I took them at face-value. Above the corner of Old Street and Kingsland Road, leaning out the windows of an anti-café, I almost heard it. I also almost became a coke addict. I drank every night. I spiraled into nihilism and depression. Everyone I knew did ketamine and listened to Flume and took a bottle of vodka to get honest about anything.
No, Shoreditch was not Bohemia either, and by the time I learned about Hackney Wick and Brixton, my visa was up.
Amsterdam was full of tourists. Paris was full of rich people. Christiania in Copenhagen looked like hash stalls and hippie capitalism. Seattle gave way to Amazon. San Francisco? Forget it. Even Oakland, bastion of radical America, the last free stronghold in the Bay — there too I found cranes and high-rises, tech startups and Whole Foods. By the time I showed up, Ghostship had turned to ghosts, and may they rest in peace.
Everywhere I looked, Bohemia was cold in its grave, having long since succumbed to gentrification, commercialization and knock-off souvenirs for tourists and Instagram celebrities. Bohemian has become Boho — a superficial aesthetic. It’s a brand now, pruned of its revolutionary roots.
“This is Calcutta. Bohemia is dead.”
— Benny, RENT
Welcome to now. Punk is dead. Grunge is dead. God is dead. Nietzsche is dead. Everything is dead.
Wherever Bohemia is, I show up a day late and a dollar short. I catch a whiff of the scent and chase onwards, forever running down rabbit holes towards the only place I’ve ever called home.
I can tell you where Bohemia is not. It is not in California or Boston. It is not in England or France. Its more-established cousins live in Bushwick and Berkeley, but they’ve lost their spirit along with their affordable housing.
From Paris to Burning Man, every would-be locus of Bohemia has a playground for the rich. Bohemia is penniless and classless, while in the places it once lived, the penniless and the classless are evicted and criminalized in downtown revival projects that seem to always include a Starbucks. The wayward ways of the past are policed and surveilled, locked in cages and partitioned by militarized borders.
This world is not ours.
What I’m really chasing is some vision of Utopia. The aesthetic is always old because the world I want doesn’t exist anymore. In truth, it never did. As I’ve grown, I’ve stopped idolizing. Turns out, there are plenty of good reasons to hate Woody Allen and Amanda Palmer. Turns out, the beatniks and hippies were sexist, everyone’s racist, nobody treats workers well. For every positive, there’s a negative. For every moment of wokeness, there’s a corresponding oppressive nap. Nothing ever lasts. Woodstock gave way to Reaganomics, the Roaring 20s collapsed into the Great Depression, La Belle Epoque crashed into World War I.
These hallowed epochs of freedom, of beauty, of truth and breathing love like oxygen were never all the way there, and they never survive — not in the face of power and money, of war and oppression.
And yet, Bohemia could never have lived without the world it rejected. It was born in the fires of rebellion. Today, across the world, those fires are being extinguished and the ashes remodeled into strip malls and prisons.
The fantasies evaporate into a stark reality: there is nowhere to go in this world where love reigns and authentic beauty matters more than convenience. There is nowhere to go where every word is honest. No place is truly free. There is no Big Rock Candy Mountain and no rest stop On the Road.
There is no escape. There is no place called Bohemia.
“Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So what’s the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep walking.” — Eduardo Galeano
In watching the world change, it feels sometimes like all is lost. All around are glass and concrete, and the few flowers springing up in the cracks are quickly trampled or plucked to be sold for profit. I don’t know how to stop resisting. I don’t think I can. I don’t know how to feel anything but pain at the cold, sleek automation of modernity. I don’t kid myself that things would’ve been better in the past. I don’t long for a Golden Age.
I do long for a sunrise.
I have found Bohemia in moments. It was singing in an upstairs bar in Montréal and a dancing at a beach club in Jacmel. I’ve smelled it, rising in smoke from a candle on a rooftop in Granada between poems and wine. I’ve built it with my own hands, from wood and paint and talavera tile in the back of a cargo van, curled up in the back while it rained outside and we listened to the sky give up. I’ve warmed it by a wood stove on a narrowboat on Regent’s Canal, dramatically reading aloud from an IKEA manual while someone played the banjo. It was there in a radical community singing Kurdish songs around a campfire in Vermont. It was there washing clothes in the bathtub of a squat. It was still there, scrawled in my journal, writing about love and loss from the corner of an immigrant detention room at Stansted Airport.
There, in every light in an otherwise dark world, I have found it.
The truth is, Bohemia was and will never be anywhere — not until we bring it there.
It stirs again when we dance for no reason. It wakes when we sing and hold each other close, light candles and raise hell and stop at nothing in our hunger for Utopia. It breathes when we are honest and vulnerable and in love. When we speak truth, when we express, regardless of reaction. When we accept each other, fully and totally, and let the spontaneous beauty of life ignite in ways we could never predict.
Bohemia lives wherever we live like beauty, truth and love are stamped into our hearts. It lives where we do not deny our humanity, but let it run naked and screaming into freedom.
This is Bohemia, and as long as we live it, it will never die.