Monday, December 19, 2011
This is not to say I was idle; there was plenty of text to fill my days. Mostly novels, as it turned out, and now it seems my next semester will be filled with them too. So now one item on my list of Things To Do 'til Jan. 17 is Refresh and Enhance my relationship with verse. Hence poem blogging. A poem (that I've never studied) and a few words about it. Nothing explicative, nothing definitive, nothing at all academic -- just something about each work that strikes me. Something to share with the many friends who don't necessarily reach to poems for a dose of concentrated human existence, and with the few who do.
To start, a short poem by Emily Dickinson, whose work I barely understand:
This consciousness that is aware
Of neighbors and the Sun
Will be the one aware of Death
And that itself alone
Is traversing the interval
And most profound experiment
Appointed unto Men--
How adequate unto itself
Its properties shall be
Itself unto itself and None
Shall make discovery.
Adventure most unto itself
The Soul condemned to be--
Attended by a single Hound
Its own identity.
What is it about this poem? I have found it nearly impossible to memorize, or at least to hold in my long-term memory. Other works I committed to mind at the same time are still intact; this one breaks through in fragments. The meter is responsible for at least some of the difficulty. The first stanza's rhythm is well-ordered, predictable iambic. Easy enough. But then the first line of Stanza 2 completely throws you off! Or at least, throws me off. To keep the meter ordered, you'd have to say TRA-versing vs. the more (currently) standard tra-VERSing. I frankly don't know which Dickinson intended, or which pronunciation was more common in 19th-c Massachusetts, but I like to think that she wanted to create a jarring effect.
And I don't think it's an accident that she starts the jarring with the word "traverse."
Like so many words in this short poem, "traverse" is a combination of two (or more) Latin roots (trans = across, versare = to turn). To name a few more, there's "consciousness" (con=with, scire=to know), "interval" (inter=between, vallum=rampart), and "adventure" (ad=towards, venire=to come). Here's where it gets crazy: several of these combo words' parts are seemingly easy to break off and attach to parts of other words in the poem. I say "seemingly" because you can't really break apart and recombine the words (to make "ex-versing" or "ad-periment," say... although now that I think of it inter+venire=intervention), but the potential for such word-play makes the poems actual words very difficult to distinguish and memorize.
Minor (and self-serving) as this point seems, I think it provides a key for understanding one of the poem's central concerns: taking apart the notion of the individual. From the first line, we know that "consciousness" is the subject of the poem, the noun doing all sorts of things like "traversing" and being "adequate." From the last stanza, we can (erroneously? I'm not sure) gather that the "Soul" is synonymous with "this Consciousness," and also that "its own identity" is not synonymous with it. The "Hound" of identity is distinct from, yet attached to, the "aware" consciousness. Something similar can be said of the long-ago compounded words that dominate this poem: the parts have meanings of their own, but they also have a meaning (distinct but related) upon being combined.
This attention to distinction/separation is delightfully apparent in the poem's most common word, "itself." Emphatically non-Latinate, "itself" appears in full form five times. It has the freshman-discovers-Derrida double-meaning going for it, where pronounced it is impossible to determine whether it serves as the reflexive pronoun "itself" or the (etymologically identical but contextually distinguishable) "its self." This second, separated form is suggested twice: "Its properties shall be" and "Its own identity." In fact, Dickinson never refers to the "consciousness" merely as "it." The consciousness, until the moment of its re-definition as "Soul" is referred to only as "itself." Her double-reference to the possessive consciousness "its" all but forces the reader to read "itself" as an instance of the "consciousness" possessing a specific self.
If this reading works, then the last stanza is incredibly chilling. The words "condemned" and "Hound" don't set expectations high for a cheerful finale, to be sure. And consider the last line: is it too much of a stretch to equate "identity" with the "self" that has been attached to "its" throughout the poem? I make this leap based on definition alone: one's "self" is, in common parlance, nearly indistinguishable from one's "identity" -- hence the emergence of phrases like "self-identity" and questions about how you "self-identify." If the association of "self" and "identity" is possible (albeit questionable), then the "identity" has in fact been "attending" the consciousness/soul throughout the poem. Even at the end of the first stanza, when the consciousness is supposedly "itself alone," its "identity" is secretly tagging along in the form of "self." There is literally (letter-ally, linguistically) no way in English to separate the broader, perhaps universal "consciousness" from the discrete and possibly miserable "self."
Yes, this claim could lead to an over-long argument about definitions of self, individual, consciousness, and all those other terms that prove so easily deflatable, but what's here is already more than "a few words."
Saturday, December 3, 2011
Everyone hates winter. My father hates winter and skinny-legged girls hate winter, but I was born in winter and am built for it and outside my high school was a brown-grass field beyond which lace-branched trees supplicated a smoky lavender sky. Dendritic trees. Before the snow falls, skeleton season: bare trees, bare earth, someone who's not me might say the "true nature" of things. In any case, as naked as the land gets.
Every winter, an obsession. All that darkness and the cold that confines you to a small warm space - it concentrates my thoughts. When I was a kid I knew they were obvious because I would get themed gifts on my birthday: countless calligraphy pens one year; a platoon of teapots another. In college I got lucky and devoted several winters to writing. Last year, I wandered empty Gowanus streets and etched Hopkins into the inside of my skull. Now here it comes again: long nights, muted skies, loud weightless air. The Thing hasn't taken shape yet but the restlessness is here; right on cue the restlessness is invigorating my veins. Just in time for me to finish up in Virginia and head north for a real winter.
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Having a dishwasher is fantastic.
Although sometimes, when I am using clean-up time as a break from reading, washing pots and sweeping floors with a TV show or NPR story playing in the background, I regret that the dishwasher makes it go quicker.
I can hear when my downstairs neighbor is running his dishwasher. The sound doesn't bother me; the reminder that he could, at any moment, turn up his speakers loud enough to make my floors vibrate does. The more quiet I have, the more I want. There is always the library, of course -- but here is my couch, here are my things; here are the walls, angles and odors carving comfortable grooves into my brain.
I haven't been here (in Charlottesville/Virginia/the South/graduate school) long enough to be able to say "what it's like." Freshman year of college, my life was essentially confined to three quads. I still remember my amazement, at the beginning of sophomore year, when I turned a corner and found myself in a part of campus I'd never before seen. Here, now, I'm more or less back to those three quads.
My classes meet Tuesday and Thursday. Does that mean I have five days of weekend? No, of course -- there are hundreds of pages of reading to absorb, and soon there will be papers to write. But also yes. Today was a no-class day. I woke when I wanted, which was at 8am. I had breakfast and read until 10:30am. I went to the gym, where I did more reading while working out. Back home, I showered and dressed, then drove to the grocery store. Originally I'd hoped to have all of my reading for tomorrow done by 6pm, but a project intervened -- because I wanted it to. Because I get to choose when to do things.
The project was peach butter. Dave visited this weekend, and despite the heat and intense humidity (which thankfully seems to have passed), we visited a nearby orchard to pick apples and peaches. Apple picking is one of my favorite things to do; peach picking is something I had never done. It was interesting. Much quieter. With apples, you've got to yank the fruits from their trees, sending the tough branches flying back in a great indignant shivering of leaves. Then there's the incredible crunch when you bite into your prize, the surge of tart to your tongue, crisp flesh caged in your teeth, Autumn.
Peaches -- you barely have to touch them to take them. A gentle twist near the stem, and the soft luscious orbs all but swoon into your hand. Biting into a peach is slow, silent, seductive. Your lips do more work than your teeth. You cradle and coddle them, you smooth their silky skin -- because you must. The peaches you want to take home would bruise or break if you treated them roughly.
...And if you're me, they bruise despite all cautions because I don't know how to handle them. A quick inventory of my remaining stock today proved depressing: all peaches were downgraded from eating to cooking quality. But I had wanted to try the Smitten Kitchen peach butter recipe anyway and was not unhappy to have an excuse. So I set about pureeing peaches and cooking them for a while with some sugar and lemon juice. I stood by the stove while the mixture bubbled away, stirring occasionally, burning my tongue on stolen tastes and reading an article about conceptions of marriage in the early 20th century.
Thought stream: before 20th century, many great works of literature culminate with a marriage. One obvious reason why: the story of an engagement makes for an extremely convenient arc. And why now, in the 21st century, do so many people like to write/blog about the dishes they cook (I pondered while checking the SK directions and considering writing about my own peach-butter-making experience)?* It must be for the same reason: the arc. The initial confusion and worry of collecting ingredients, the plot (or sauce!) heating up, transforming and mingling everything in it -- and, finally, the result. Aromatic, edible, a triumph or comedic failure that might serve as a Learning Moment. Usually with photographic evidence. Here is mine:
The goopy brown stuff on the left is the peach butter. It is delicious, with all the tangy purity the recipe promised. The bread is also homemade (and yummy) but that's another story.
I suppose cleaning up is the denouement? I cleaned up with the new episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm playing on my computer. I loaded the dishwasher. Even with all the kitchen activity, it was only a third full.
*It was at this moment that I realized I am an English graduate student.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
I wore my new custom-made dress from Hoi An. At the Bangkok hotel, I blow-dried my hair and even risked applying makeup for the first time in sweltering Southeast Asia. It was just a sweep of mascara, but Dave noticed that something looked different.
We were preparing ourselves for a treat.
For the past two days, Dave and I had fueled ourselves on the city’s amazing (and amazingly cheap) street food. Platters of fiery-sweet noodles, fragrant soups, complex curries, and chunks of fruit dipped in spicy salted sugar overflowed from Bangkok’s street stalls, food courts, and curbside cafés. But Bangkok is also home to some of the world’s great fine dining restaurants, and for tonight we picked one called Nahm.
Dave had read about Nahm months earlier. Founded by an Australian living in London, Nahm was the first Thai restaurant to earn a Michelin Star. When a second branch opened in Bangkok, Thai critics were split: some raged that Thai cuisine cooked by an outsider could never claim authenticity; others raved about the incredible food.
I hoped to take a taxi even though the restaurant was quite close to our hotel. Tonight was for living in style, and a pounding tropical rainstorm ensured that walking would destroy my careful coiffing efforts. But Dave and I quickly discovered that catching a cab is impossible in a Bangkok storm. Our raincoats provided little protection against the wind-blown drops as we walked backwards in the direction of the restaurant, arms out in hailing position.
We looked like beached merpeople by the time we stepped through Nahm’s gleaming doors. My once-perfect hair was dripping and bedraggled; the hem of my new dress clung to soaked knees. Dave’s rain-speckled glasses steamed up in the indoor air. A smiling young woman seated the two of us at a large table set for four, where I used a spare napkin to dry off.
A meal worthy of kings would soon heal the wounds of our less than royal arrival.
As recommended by the New York Times, Dave and I both ordered the tasting menu – his vegetarian, mine with seafood but no meat. We started with an identical amuse bouche that packed all the flavors of an excellent pad see ew into a single, glutinous bite. Then came an appetizer: we each received four crisp, flavorful betel leaves filled with different exotic, highly spiced goodies. The idea was to pick up each one and eat it like a soft taco.
“I’m already feeling sort of full,” I said as our server cleared away the licked-clean dishes.
The half-sized appetizer plates were replaced with large dinner plates, which our server mounded high with steaming rice. Then she brought out the main course – or rather, main courses. There was a fiery, tangy seafood salad for me and a vegetable version for Dave, two soups that sang with lemongrass, a wonderfully creamy yellow crab curry with Thai flavors and a rich vegetable curry that tasted like India. We spooned food onto our rice and ate Thai style, using our forks to load morsels onto our spoons, then bringing the spoons to our mouths.
“So. Delicious.” Dave said.
Then more food arrived. A savory tofu stir fry, earthy mushrooms paired with bright greens, incredibly flaky fish nestled in sweet soft eggplant. Dave undid his belt. We were barely halfway through the excellent bottle of wine that the flamboyant sommelier (there was a sommelier!) had recommended.
Then more food arrived.
Fortunately, in Thai culture, it is considered polite to leave food on the table at the end of a meal. The host is expected to provide more food than the guest can eat, and the guest should leave a bit food behind to prove that the host provided enough.* By the time Dave undid his pants button, it was clear we had to concede defeat – leaving behind three quarters of the feast. It hurt to watch all the sublime food go to waste, but it would have hurt more to take another bite.
“And for dessert?” our server asked after the plates were cleared.
Dave and I looked at each other. We’d forgotten that the tasting menu came with a sweet course and considered forgoing it altogether. But we looked at the menu. Well, why not sample two dishes? We could take a taste apiece and call it a night. Dave chose an icy lychee-based pudding that was served with a bit of cake and fried shallots. I knew what I had to order instantly.
“I’ll have the durian dish,” I said. The server smiled.
“You know durian?” she said. I nodded.
Dave’s dessert arrived cold, mine warm. We explored his first: clear, a bowl of jelly-like fruit swimming in its own icy juice that paired beautifully with the soft cake and even the rich shallots. Then I pulled up my dish, a coconut tapioca pudding topped with a mound of warm cooked durian. I dug in a spoon. Steam rose up.
Garbage! Sewage! Putrefaction!
My nose was under attack. The stench rising from the bland-looking bowl overwhelmed me. Dave was giggling.
“Now do you smell it?” he said.
“Oh my God,” I said. But I had to try one bite. Breathing through my mouth, I pulled the bowl close and ladled up a small spoonful. The pudding was wonderfully rich, sweet, and creamy – but the flavor of the durian interrupted these sensations with all the putrid intensity of its aroma. I don’t know why this durian tasted so awful. Maybe I was too full to enjoy anything, or maybe heating the fruit intensifies its odor.
I pushed the dessert to the far end of our huge table, hopefully out of smelling range. Soon our server came to clear up.
“You don’t like the durian?” she said, seeing my barely touched dessert.
“We’re just so full,” I said guiltily. Her eyebrows rose but she said no more, though there was no reason why a bulging belly would force me to push to durian halfway to Cambodia.
Despite this pungent experience, I didn’t acquire an eternal detestation for durian. But the fresh fruit is nearly impossible to find in this part of the world, so I’ll have to wait for my next trip to Southeast Asia to try durian again.
Monday, July 11, 2011
BREAKING NEWS UPDATE: Bus reached Riverside Station at 12:58pm, where it was greeted by a cheering crowd. Driver Will Kazmini declined to participate in celebrations, saying he needed to get the bus's remaining passengers to their Cambridge destination on time. Original story below.
A World Wide Tours Bus that departed from midtown Manhattan at approximately 9am today will likely reach Riverside Station in Newton, Massachusetts, at the scheduled arrival time of 1pm, according to driver Will Kazmini. The current on-time arrival rate for buses traveling this route is .02%.
"It was a bunch of lucky circumstances coming together," said Kazmini, who has been employed by World Wide for 11 months and has landed just one other bus on time, that one at 2am. Kazmini cited lack of traffic, good weather, and efficient communication among bus operator employees as the primary causes for the on-time arrival.
Still, he cautioned against high expectations.
"There's 5 minutes left," Kazmini said. "Anything could happen."
But passengers' spirits are buoyed by the good news.
"I was prepared for the long haul," said Stephanie Bernhard, 24. "My pack has survival supplies for up to 36 hours." She said it hasn't yet sunk in that she might have a whole afternoon after the trip from New York, but she has already called friends and family at home to tell them they should expect her soon.
Newton Mayor Setti Warren will greet the incoming bus at Riverside Station, where he will honor Kazmini with a key to the city to recognize his feat of punctuality. World Wide's budget bus competitors, including Bolt Bus, Megabus, and Fung Wah, declined to comment for this story.
Friday, July 8, 2011
Two weeks and a country away from the Mekong, Dave and I were acquainting ourselves with another muddy river: the Chao Phraya of Bangkok. The Thai capital's main attractions, from golden-domed temples to grandiose palaces embellished with exotic depictions of animals and people, are all located in an old section of the vast city that is not accessible via the city’s metro systems. A river ferry provides the most efficient means of transport between the old city and the Sky Train stop that we would take back to our hotel.
After a full day of examining giant Buddhas, losing ourselves in Bangkok’s befuddling alley system, and sweating through our shirts, we were ready to freshen up in the cool comfort of our hotel. We made our way back to the closest ferry station, where a cluster of vendors were hawking their wares. One venerable fruit merchant, a shaggy-haired man who would not have looked out of place at a San Francisco co-op, persuaded Dave to buy a neon-hued king orange beverage. The juice was delicious: sweet, sour, and salty in equal measures. I noticed that he also stocked plump sections of pale yellow fruit seated on Styrofoam trays and sheathed in plastic wrap. These pods were fatter and paler than those we’d seen in Vietnam, but they were definitely durian.
I bought a tray. The fruit, I reasoned, deserved another chance. Perhaps our Mekong durian had been subpar.
I unwrapped my treat while we waited for the ferry. This time, the flesh didn’t collapse when I bit into the pod; instead it remained firm but lush and creamy. The flavor was milder and somehow more savory than the previous durian's.
“Dave — I think I like it!” I said as the ferry approached.
“I can smell it,” he said. He wouldn't try a single bite.
We climbed aboard the boat. More of a tourist vehicle during off-peak hours, in early evening the ferry was as crowded as a rush hour New York subway car. Teenagers in baggy school uniforms jostled for space with well-dressed professionals and grungy tourists, while monks in saffron robes stood aloof looking out at the choppy waters.
“Really?” I said as the ferry pulled away. “I can’t smell it. Is it bad?”
“It smells like garbage.”
“Oh. Sorry, I guess,” I said. I kept nibbling at the durian nonetheless. Filling my mouth with its flavor probably prevented the odor from offending my nose. The more I ate, the less disturbing I found the onion taste and the more I enjoyed the fruit’s intense sweetness and pudding-like consistency. I moved closer to Dave as more ferry passengers crushed in around us. He backed away.
“Seriously, you don’t smell that?” The boat was ripping down the Chao Phraya. Dave stood downwind of me.
“No!” I said.
“It’s really strong. Like something is rotting.”
“Well I’ll throw it away when we get off.”
Soon the ferry was pulling into a dock. The boats only stop for a matter of seconds, so we rushed to the exit while I pulled out a map to make sure we had actually reached our destination.
“No,” I cried. “This isn’t it — we have three more stops!”
But it was too late. Dave had already jumped out to the dock, and the ferrymen were now pushing the boat back onto the river. I was still on the boat. It was gaining speed.
“WAIT!” I screamed, pointing at Dave. The ferrymen laughed at my distress. I balked. Then all at once I started laughing too. “I’ll meet you at the next stop!” I called. I couldn’t tell if Dave heard me over the roar of the engine and slapping of waves.
At the next station I dutifully disembarked, durian still in hand. I ate a few more bites before tossing what was left into a nearby trash can — a luxury after two weeks in Vietnam, where the government apparently didn’t consider such receptacles a public necessity.
In Vietnam. If this had happened in Vietnam, I would have been terrified. The dock where I waited was much quieter than others on the Chao Phraya. I was totally alone looking out at the broad muddy waters floating occasional bunches of detached water plants that rose and fell on the waves. It looked just like the Mekong, if you replaced the skyscrapers with palm trees and the grand gilded temples with rusty tin shacks. I had changed since we chugged down that river just twelve days earlier. Then, even a minor inconvenience like this would have initiated a nervous fit: heart pounding, palms sweating, mind churning with worst-case scenarios.
Now I was calm, even amused. A place is a place is a place. With a head on your shoulders and a few coins in your pocket, it’s usually possible to adjust your course and plan your next move. This is how you travel, if you’re lucky enough to have the chance.
The next ferry pulled up, and there was Dave waving at the back near the entrance. His smile said Yes, we’re ridiculous – but that’s no reason to abandon our dignity. I hopped on and pulled him in for a hug.
“Hello,” he said. “You smell like durian.”
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
“That’s not durian,” Huyen said.
It was the first day of our overnight trip to the Mekong Delta, the immensely fertile river-streaked region of Vietnam’s far South. Dave and I had booked an organized tour at the last minute, and through sheer luck ended up with a guide just for us. Huyen (pronounced “h-WEEN” as far as I could tell) was a youngish woman with skinny legs, stick-out ears, and teeth that proved Western orthodontistry hasn’t yet hit it big in rural Vietnam. She had just led us off our river boat for a sampling of the Mekong’s famous local fruits. Dave and I were welcomed into an open-sided wooden house, served thimbles of jasmine tea, and offered trays of mango, pineapple, hairy lychee-like rambutans, thumb-sized bananas, and the yellow fruit I recognized from Saigon’s Chinatown.
“Durian!” I exclaimed. Huyen disagreed.
“Jackfruit,” she corrected me. “Maybe similar outside. Very different inside.”
Oops. I told Huyen about our supposed durian encounter in Saigon.
“Jackfruit,” she said.
Huyen was a Mekong native who had moved to Saigon two years earlier, hoping her English skills would win her a better job than they could in the countryside. As a guide, she was able to visit the Mekong most days; but eventually Huyen hoped to move back permanently and raise livestock and fruit trees. Indeed, Huyen seemed as interested in the topic of fruit generally as I was in durian specifically. What fruits grew natively in the U.S.? she wanted to know. What crops were harvested in our Northeastern region? Did pineapples or bananas grow anywhere in the U.S.? What fruit was most popular among Americans?
When we told Huyen how much Americans like apples, she grinned enthusiastically.
“Sometimes we have U.S. apple in Vietnam, and I buy,” she said. “But not often. Very expensive. We have apple from China cheaper, but not good.”
“What’s your favorite fruit?” I asked Huyen.
“Me?” she said. “I prefer durian.”
Over the next 24 hours, Dave and I would taste the sweetest, juiciest mango of our lives, but we wouldn’t taste durian. At jungle-like orchards alive with the buzzing of hidden bugs, we would encounter jackfruits three times the size of my head dangling from branches no thicker than a baby’s wrist. We would sniff confounding varieties of fragrant citrus fruits named lemon, lime, and king orange, all green-skinned. At the famous floating market, we would see boats piled high with pineapples, coconuts, and bananas. But no durian.
“Now I will show you durian,” Huyen said at last. We were preparing to depart from Can Tho, the Mekong’s largest city, for our long ride back to Saigon. Huyen looked around the busy intersection where we were waiting for our car. Close to the river, inches from the motorbike swarms, she spotted her target: a pair of vendors displaying pails of pink cherry-sized globes and a basket of spiky, football-sized ovals. We advanced.
“Durian,” said Huyen, pointed to the thorn-covered fruits. I elbowed Dave excitedly.
We were invited to seat ourselves on the vendors’ tiny plastic stools while Huyen squatted to examine the vendors’ wares. After some pressing and sniffing, she negotiated a price for us. The durian she chose did not look as though it wanted to be eaten: brown and hard-shelled, its inch-long spikes were sharp enough to pierce human flesh. But the vendor cracked it open with a few hacks of her machete-like knife, revealing a white-lined interior cushioning large, yellow-gray pods the shape of mutant orange segments. Huyen extracted two and handed them to Dave and me.
“Eat everything but the seed,” she said.
I took a bite. Immediately the pod, which had seemed firm to the touch, collapsed into a gooey, sticky mess. Dave later compared the texture to runny egg. The taste — well, it was interesting. Very rich, very complex. Like jackfruit, it had a distinct onion flavor, but the durian’s was more pronounced. It competed with a musky and distinctly tropical flavor that hovered somewhere between pineapple and putrefaction.
“It’s like — the texture of banana, with the taste of pineapple?” I said. I wanted very much to like it.
“No,” Huyen said. “Completely different.”
Dave and I ate a few more bites, but declined when Huyen offered us the final pod. She ate it with gusto.
“What did you think?” I asked Dave as we got up.
“Glad we tried it,” he said. “Don’t need to try it again.”
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
“Binh Thay Market. Chinatown. Cholon. Cho-lawn? Chow-luhn?”
It was Day Two in Saigon, our first city, and after a sobering morning at the War Remnants Museum, Dave and I were at last ready to venture away from the compact, attraction-packed district near our hotel. After failed negotiations with a few xe om, or motorbike drivers, we hailed a cab that was not operated by one of the two companies our guidebook recommended. We showed the cabbie a map, pointed to our destination. He looked at it in some confusion, but soon gave a quick nod of his head and said “Yes, Chinatown market.” Dave and I were dubious, the more so because the driver insisted we set a price up front instead of starting the cab’s meter. But the price he quoted was reasonable — about $5 — and the driver assured us that he wouldn’t add any charges later on.
Twenty minutes of deafening traffic later, he pulled over next to a wide alley that did contain some sort of indoor market. But the street we were on did not correspond with the one we wanted according to the map. Dave tried to explain this to our driver.
“Chinatown market! Chinatown market!” the cabbie said, pointing at the building. Flustered, we paid him and jumped out to the curb. A quick study of our map showed that the driver had, in fact, brought us to a Chinatown market — but not the one we wanted. This one was much smaller and a significantly shorter ride from the museum. We would have to catch another cab or walk about two miles to our intended destination.
“Let’s just walk,” I said. “After all, we’re here to explore.” And, I added silently, we need some time to recover from the sting of being ripped off. This didn’t take long. We had only been wandering for a few moments when I spotted a cart creaking with the weight of a growing mound of golden yellow fruit chunks that flew from the knife of an old lady, who was in turn pulling the pods from inside a giant fruit with knobbly green-brown skin.
“Dave — I think that’s durian!”
I had been itching to try this mysterious fruit long before we stepped off the plane into the sultry air of Vietnam. My fruit-loving friend Yifan had exulted its many virtues: an intense sweetness, a complex flavor, and a creamy, luscious texture. After hearing such praise, you can imagine my surprise when a Google search informed me that durians are banned from the Singapore subway system.
Why ban durians and not, say, mangoes?
It turns out that many people, including Southeast Asians, find the fruit’s odor repugnant — an overpowering bouquet of garbage, sewage, and putrid decay. The same people tend to despise the divisive fruit’s flavor, and even those who praise it as the “king of fruits” offer flavor descriptions ranging from odd to alarming. I encountered “banana and garlic pudding,” “vanilla custard with a dirty sock aftertaste,” and “pineapple foie gras.” I couldn’t wait to taste it.
Dave and I approached the Chinatown fruit vendor, who held out a 10,000 dong bill to indicate how much she would charge for a plastic baggie filled with pods that she had pared away from the fruit’s huge round seeds. We paid, thanked her, and walked away with our booty.
I sniffed the bag’s contents: floral, piney, and a bit oniony, but not at all disgusting. Dave wasn’t deterred either.
“Maybe it’s like cilantro — some people smell it, others don’t?”
We tasted. The refreshing flesh crunched between our teeth, releasing notes of sweet pineapple, citrus, and an entirely new essence onto our tongues. The onion aroma translated into a taste mild enough that it wasn’t unpleasant. Dave and I agreed that the fruit was palatable and interesting, but neither outrageously delicious nor horribly disgusting — the two most common ratings of durian.
But, oh well. We had tasted it, fortifying ourselves for the long walk to come and checking another item off our Vietnam to-do list.
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
“Here I am, behind you.”
They say: “I move faster than you and intend to pass you.”
They say: “Here I am, approaching you on the left. Do you hear?”
Most importantly, they say: “I understand your way of moving, and as I pass will use this understanding to calculate how much room to give you. So go straight; do not alter your trajectory or speed.”
On a bike, Dave tends to wobble and swerve. On that first trip to the beach, he fell so far behind that I turned back, heart thudding, wondering how I would explain to his parents that I’d let their eldest son plummet into an Indochinese ditch (incidentally, our hotel had no helmets available for bikers). I was sure that he'd lost his balance on the long stretch of road that was under construction, where the street itself had been churned into a four-foot-deep pit of red dirt. Here motorbikes resorted to the narrow strip of sidewalk, passing each other with millimeters to spare between curb drop-off and storefront. I had retraced my steps to this segment when Dave emerged from the red dust, safe and whole.
“Are you okay?” I said. He said he was.
“Did you fall?” He shrugged, didn’t affirm or deny, kept the details to himself.
“You’re riding up front now,” I said.
The next day, we were set to try a new route to a beach that was reportedly quieter, cooler, and just as close to the town center. Dave and I learned of this purported paradise from Randy, a burly white-bearded American expat whose secondhand bookstore we’d visited on a ramble through the sleepy residential neighborhood across the river.
“Our hotel didn’t tell us about that beach,” I said when Randy pointed it out on a map. He chuckled.
“There’s a lot they don’t tell you,” he said.
So out Dave and I set, slathered in sunscreen and sporting our swimsuits. We wanted to swim together and therefore left all of our valuables at the hotel, save a small sum of cash. I didn’t like this plan one bit, any more than I liked the idea of leaving anything, even just our clothes and towels, on the beach unattended. Biking back wet and shoeless was an unpleasant prospect. But Dave was game and I had no better suggestions. Time to take a tiny risk, I decided.
Today’s road was nicer than yesterday’s. To start, there was no life-threatening construction, though I still had a minor heartquake every time Dave wobbled close to a motorbike ripping by at Nascar pace. It took less time to break free from the town’s peripheral sprawl of restaurants, hotels, and local Ca Phe cafés with motorbikes bunched out front like so many weeds. Then there were rice paddies on our left and right, blindingly bright young green and soft-looking, and the farmers wading with their hoes and their conical hats and their water buffalo and their dogs. I didn’t know if it was more happy or sad that people still lived and farmed that way. Eventually the land lifted into sand dunes that looked a lot like the dunes of Cape Cod’s Race Point, except these had cactuses and taller trees and the trees had different, strange-looking leaves. Also, there was the noise and smell of motorbikes.
At the beach we paid 5000 dong (25 cents) to park our bikes and marched down to the sand, which was dotted with mostly-empty lounge chairs operated by a beachside restaurant. Randy had done us right: there were few other people crowding the pristine, palm-fringed beach. No white people at all. Dave and I picked out two chairs, deposited our things, and hopped down the hot sand to the South China Sea.
“This water is like a bath,” I said as we sloshed our way in.
“It’s wonderful,” Dave said.
It was wonderful. The beach as a whole was wonderful, surprisingly similar to the beaches I’d known all my life: children playing in the waves, parents smiling and calling to them, dogs splashing, scent of saltwater spray. Some continents end in the same way; some leisure activities transcend oceans.
Later, back on the sand – where our belongings remained untouched – Dave took out his Kindle to read Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater and I opened the copy of Sense and Sensibility that I’d bought at the Saigon airport’s domestic terminal. After a few minutes of reading, I looked up from my book: a strange crab skittered across the sand; my collection of tiny, delicately-swirled snail shells glinted on the towel; a boy chased his wet puppy; mountain islands hulked offshore. I turned to Dave, clicking away at his pages, thick, sandy hair wild with wind and seawater. He looked about as content as I’d ever seen him.
“It’s weird,” I said. “All of a sudden it feels like we’re on a vacation.”
The road had largely cleared by evening, so our bike ride back to town felt almost calm by Vietnamese standards. The sun loomed low and gold over the patchwork rice paddies as we rode past, the still waters of the submerged fields reflecting its fiery glow. At the roadside, farmers burnt their daily offerings to Buddha and the good spirits, releasing wisps of fragrant rice smoke into the heavy tropical air. It was almost dark by the time we glided into the Hoi An’s quaint streets, where tailors and restaurant owners were burning their own offerings of cloth and food, respectively. Down by the river, women sold candles in paper boxes that the buyer might float on the water, sending them back to the sea.
Dave and I were nearly as filthy as I’ve been in my life by the time we reached the hotel. Sunscreen, sweat, sand, seawater, smoke, and road dust caked our overheated bodies. Taking a shower — even one that shared floor space with the toilet — had never felt so thrilling. But when I emerged from the bathroom, it became clear that the room’s air conditioner had barely begun to kick in. I spread myself out on the bed. How did the locals live comfortably with such heat? They were used to it, of course. My theory is that the Vietnamese have a different way of holding their bodies, a looser, more languid way of arranging their limbs. If I paid attention, I noticed it in the tailors lounging and working at their shop, in the men reclining street-side on their motorbikes, even in the women who paced the street with their fruit baskets. This way of being would not come naturally to me, a cold-weather New England creature much more familiar with the opposite stance for combating weather: the tightening of shoulders, drawing in of elbows, and clenching of the jaw necessary for keeping out the winter wind.
Lying on the Hoi An hotel bed, I practiced loosening my jaw, freeing my elbows, and relaxing my shoulders — my own version of going native. The sweat came anyway. I had just one more week to master the heat of a Southeast Asian summer.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Hoi An, a sunny little haven of yellow stucco houses and palm trees, sleepy restaurants and narrow streets, was paradise after the endless noise, stench, construction, and clouds of Saigon to the South. The town center had few enough roads that we were able to master them, more or less, on the first day. It helped that our hotel hostess gave us a small map — quaintly titled “Hoi An Vestiges of Interest — identifying the town’s historical sites and labeling its streets. These were organized along a placid green river bordered by a quiet lane, convenient both for strolling and for orienting. Best of all, the river led right to the nearby sea — and there was a tropical beach a short bike ride away. We went to the beach every afternoon; the mornings we reserved for exploring the town.
“You wantake pishah?”
The tiny old lady, from whom I’d just bought a bag of cut pineapple, was actually posing for me at a Hoi An street corner. She had the conical hat, the brightly patterned pajama suit, the socks and flip-flops on her feet. On her left shoulder she balanced a set of the scale-like market baskets we saw everywhere: whole pineapples in one, cut pineapples and tiny green bananas in the other. Hoi An is, you see, a tourist town.
I didn’t have my camera, but shruggingly indicated to Dave that yes, he should take a picture. I’d spent three days in Saigon unsuccessfully trying to catch shots of Vietnamese women in socks and sandals. It was supposed to be a sort of joke for people at home: “See? Your dorky dad would be fashionable here.” Dave got out his iPhone. Smile, snap. The lady tried to push bananas into our hands, but we stood our ground and continued walking.
Is it okay to enjoy a town that relies on tourism to keep it alive? Were we skirting some sort of authenticity by staying in a town where the locals had learned to see themselves as novelties, versus an anonymous village where we wouldn’t have encountered another white face? Is there some sort of morality to traveling roughly and unconventionally, or is the urge to do so as common as Western faces in Hoi An? It’s a question that recurred throughout the trip, one that Dave often detected in my tone, one that he tried to put out of my mind so I would remember to take pleasure in our journey.
At this point in our stay, Dave and I had done a cursory tour of Hoi An’s original tourist draw: its eclectic collection of old architecture, including a Japanese bridge, Chinese temple, Portuguese office, and Vietnamese houses that reflect the town’s storied past as Central Vietnam’s main port. Now noon was approaching, and the town’s sultry streets suddenly emptied.
“Mad dogs and Englishmen,” Dave said.
“The poem. ‘Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.’”
“Which are we, mad dogs or Englishmen?”
“I am half an Englishman.”
“Then I’ll be the dog.”
Peering into dim houses, we observed the Vietnamese at midday rest: lounging on hammocks, dozing in chairs, napping on floors. Even the dogs we saw — the sane ones — were sprawled out snoozing in what shade they could find. For lunch Dave and I stepped into a dark café whose utter emptiness might have been off-putting if we hadn’t had a delicious meal there two days earlier.
No one responded save a small bird, housed in a cage near the ceiling, who cooed softly.
“Maybe they’re closed?” I said.
But suddenly a girl, maybe 16 years old, shot up from her makeshift bed of three chairs pushed together. For a moment she looked around, blinking, with a disorientation suggesting she’d been tugged from a very deep sleep. But when she saw us she smiled, nodded, indicated a table.
“I feel guilty — maybe we should let her go back to sleep,” I said.
“I’m sure they want our business,” Dave said. We ordered summer rolls and a unique Vietnamese salad that stands out as one of the best dishes I tasted in Asia: threads of green papaya and carrots tossed with amazingly fragrant black peppercorns and a mysteriously tangy white dressing, all topped with cilantro, peanuts, fried shallots, and baby shrimp.
“What’s in the dressing?” I asked our waitress, who had by now attained full alertness. I ladled up a spoonful of the thin white sauce and pointed to it, then made a questioning gesture. She ducked into the kitchen to ask, and came back with a list of the usual suspects: fish sauce, lime juice, vinegar, sugar.
But what made it white?
“Mai O Nai,” she said. I looked at Dave.
“Mayonnaise,” he said.
After lunch, we had an appointment with one of Hoi An’s contemporary tourist draws: a tailor. The town is home to more than 500 of them, all sewing custom clothing at a fraction of the price you would pay in the States or other Western countries. Clothing stores account for most of the town’s storefronts, their colorful displays of dresses, coats and silk scarves spilling onto the sidewalk. The day before, Dave and I had gone to a shop recommended by the guidebook to be measured for shirts, suits, dresses, and pants. Today we were back for a fitting.
June is the low season for tourism, and the tailors of B’Lan — all petite young women in bright pink ao dais — were lounging by the shop’s entrance when we walked up. They leapt to attention when they saw us, switching on fan after whirring fan as they led us through the expansive store: past the elaborate display area, past the open-air shrine to Buddha with its marble statue and burbling fountain, and into the dim fitting area where the walls were lined with countless fabric bolts that fluttered in the fans’ breeze.
“They don’t leave the fans on when we’re not here,” Dave whispered to me.
“Maybe their boss wants to save on energy?” I said.
“Maybe they just don’t need it,” Dave said.
It seemed impossible that anyone would eschew relief from Vietnam’s humid, 90+ degree heat. Yet none of the tailors was sweating (as we were, profusely), nor did they seem at all uncomfortable. They handed us bottles of cool water, which also started sweating immediately.
Soon Dave and I were shoved into dressing rooms and instructed to disrobe. When our sticky bodies and damp clothes caused embarrassing delays, the tailors pushed aside the curtains and started pulling the garments off our bodies.
“Sorry,” I said to a woman with glasses and acne as she tugged at my sleeve. “Very hot.”
“Yes, yes,” she said. She fanned me with her notepad.
Once they’d freed me from my Capri pants, the tailors set about wedging my perspiring body into the lovely V-neck dress they’d sewn in less than 24 hours.
“Really, I’m sorry,” I said as the bespectacled woman zipped me into the dress, which conformed perfectly to my shape. “This beautiful new fabric – and I’m just sweating all over it.”
“Good fit?” she said, steering me to face the mirror.
“Oh – yes!”
I ventured beyond the curtain to show Dave. A small army of pink-clad tailors surrounded him, pinching and marking the chalked-up foundation of a wool suit jacket draped over him. At 5’ 8”, he was a giant amidst the Vietnamese women, shoulders and face and dazed grin well clear of the tallest tailor’s head. Beads of sweat swelled at his temples, burst and trickled down his face and into the stiff new collar of his dress shirt.
“This first time you get clothes fit?” A tailor asked me.
Yes. We can’t afford luxury in our country, but in your country we are kings.
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Very little went wrong on my recent trip to Asia, and what did go wrong was laughed off within hours. Because of (or despite) this, the trip was worth a whole lot to me: a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge, a lot of fun. I can’t claim perfection, can’t adopt a voice of infinite cheer — that would seem somehow unfair to Vietnam and Thailand. I can tell you what I saw, heard, and smelled; I can tell you what I didn’t see, hear, or smell. I can claim to have understood a few things and much more easily confess to having misunderstood or simply not understood many more. Endless chatter in foreign tongues, expressions of face and word that might or might not have been attempting to communicate what they did in fact communicate. A general feeling of being apart, not just in race, language, and culture, but in expectations, in daily rhythms, ways of holding and being oneself. Try as one might, the world would remain impenetrable. You can only go so deep in 17 days.
Last time I was abroad, in France, the goal was not just to travel but to study, live, blend. Yet despite speaking French (well enough), befriending locals, and exploring the region, five months in Provence barely nicked the dense wall of my ignorance in all the matters that mattered. I was still on the outside, still a neophyte. How much outrageously more, then, must I be ignorant of Asia?
Maybe I would have absorbed more if I’d written about the trip as it was happening, provided a running score of the towns we encountered and meals we ate as we encountered and ate them. But I was too lazy or exhausted or caught up in the joys of traveling with another to do any real writing on the ground. Did I mention that I had a companion, the wonderful Dave? Neither of us had ever had ever traveled as half of a pair, and I found that learning to be and go together — a surprisingly easy, happy lesson — proved almost as much of an adventure as Asia itself.
In the past, I was accustomed to seeing places “as a writer,” which is to say alone. Even when traveling with others, I formed my most important memories apart: in England it was abandoning my group to explore the medieval castles on my own; in Provence it was daily solitary walks in the countryside; in Maine it was letting my mind wander in the potato fields. But traveling with someone, I mean really with someone, is the opposite of observing the world as a writer. Every observation is immediately shared, immediately identified as an experience and shaped as one memory in two minds. This is not to say that Dave and I didn’t have individual thoughts about and reactions to the places that we visited — of course we did — but rather that the dialog we wrote together, our collective impressions, became the text that defined the nature of our trip-as-it-was-happening. This shared text is invaluable, a funny and beautiful narrative that we’ll be able to return to again and again as the trip becomes fixed in our memories. It bears a certain resemblance to the blog form: a tone of general cheer, an impulse to make the best of every situation, a tendency to prove to ourselves that we were having the best possible time or even a very good time — which we usually were. Our shared story acts as a sort of proof that we were there, together, in Asia.
But now that I’m back in the States, now that I have some time to myself, I can pick back through my individual memories of Vietnam and Thailand to create a new text: not a lovers’ dialog but a writer’s stream, a selfish, pungent collection of moments that might distinguish my small sip of Asia from the sips and gulps of the millions of others who came before. Isn’t that to some extent what we all want, we outsiders drawn to those parts of the world most distant from our own? To feel that we have seen something slightly different, or seen it in a slightly different way, or seen it slightly more intensely than anyone else?
Thursday, May 26, 2011
The next morning, we got our first taste of Saigon traffic from the pedestrian perspective. Don't look both ways: when you cross the street, stare straight ahead -- or the sight of motorbikes and taxis hurdling towards you will freeze your nerve and legs, and you'll be stuck in the flow. The trick is to maintain a steady pace, not too quick, and let the traffic to surge around you. It will; it does.
But that doesn't make taking the plunge easy.
I still end up grasping Dave's hand as we plunge across the wider boulevards, governed only marginally by traffic lights and signs. By the time we reach the other side, I'm usually giggling neurotically. Making the situation funny is the best way to allay the fear, after remembering not to look both ways.
In any case, Saigon has enough to see in every direction that I'm glad not to waste time staring at oncoming traffic (so I tell myself). There's the architecture, a jumble of pastel-painted colonial leftovers and crumbling tenements, shiny new skyscrapers and dim garage-like storefronts. There's the lush tropical plant life bursting in endless variety from sidewalks and courtyards: thick green leaves, delicate flowers in pink, white, and yellow, knots of roots rising from black soil saturated with the wet season's rains. Most of all, there's the street life. Many sidewalks here are quite wide, and people roost in groups on tiny plastic stools and chairs, drinking their thick iced coffees and slurping their soup from real glasses and bowls that are (I assume) returned to their vendors when the meal is complete. Street food has a whole different meaning here. Tiny women in conical hats and pajama suits literally plop giant buckets of soup or bags of noodles on the sidewalk, squat next to their wares, and await customers. There never seems to be a want of those. (To be continued.)
AND THEN WE SAW PUPPIES! This crate was perched on the back of a motorbike.
As soon as I started fawning, the bike's (and puppies') owner, seated on a nearby railing, called "One dollar! One dollar!" Dave pulled at my arm; he didn't want me to lead the man on -- or maybe he thought I might actually be tempted to buy a puppy.* Reluctantly I backed away, but not before snapping this guy's incredible mug:
*I might have been tempted to buy an actual puppy. Their cuteness is pretty hard to overstate.
Monday, February 7, 2011
Thursday, January 27, 2011
(1) Sink into maudlin black gloom convinced that the universe is against me.
(2) Rationalize. There must be a reason for all this. It will all work out for the best.
But neither one is working.
(1) is impossible as
- (a) Everyone I love is living and healthy
- (b) I am living and healthy enough
- (c) Though I'm disappointed with my progress in life, I'm employed/fed/housed/educated.
(2) is impossible as
- (a) Nothing happens for a reason.
- (b) Things don't work out on their own, and certainly not for the best.
- (c) Fate doesn't give gifts. Whatever I want I have to fight for.
Of course a select few are made of helium. The other trick is remembering that you're not and won't ever be.
Monday, January 24, 2011
Hopefully the four people who read this will like it better than my poetry project, which incidentally was the work taking over the space in my brain that should (should?) have been focusing on fiction. I was thinking about the dumb poster thing while chugging away at the elliptical this evening, realizing anew how idiotically incomprehensible it must be to anyone who's not me. But that sonnet! How can anyone read Hopkins and not want to explore what those rough sounds do to your mouth and mind? It's such a bleak, bleak poem yet... it incites only ecstasy in me. Why? Hopkins expresses his misery so precisely, so piercingly, that I can't help but feel I understand him perfectly. Centuries, nationalities, religions, genders, vanish; two humans and one feeling remain. My heart beats to his rhythm. Try speaking it, you'll know what I mean. I read it again in my head (this is still on the elliptical) and felt all the same force: emotion amber-bound, always at hand when the need strikes. Of course this is all old; everyone knows why people read poetry. But the fact that I spent my workout explaining it to myself -- and a month trying to explain it to Brooklyn -- convinced me of two things:
1) Grad school's probably a good place for me.
2) A non-literary hobby might be healthy.
In the meantime, "How Many Hands:"
Who is it ringing the lunch bell? Not Jo. She gives it three swift strikes and lets the last one mellow into a round silence. Today’s sound is an arrhythmic clang, buoyant in the gray air. The two temporary farmhands, squatting in the lettuce field, look up at each other. They stand, stretch, brush off dirt where they can. No company is expected.
Here. They are here, thinks Jo. Her cousin Mary from the half-forgotten hick side of her past. Now middle-aged, extra-wide hips, two kids hanging off her. Fifteen years, it’s been. Mary introduces her husband Will, who stands by silently, leather face creased into a scornful smile that seems hitched to his ears. The kids are a small boy and even smaller girl in Walmart clothes. The boy spots the lunch bell as they trek up the long dirt driveway.
“Can I ring it?” he begs.
“Sure,” says Jo. “I was about to call lunch when you guys rolled up.” She lifts the skinny boy so he can grab the bell rope. He reaches with his left hand and leans the other arm against Jo’s shoulder, which is when Jo’s heart stops because she sees he’s got — Oh Lord he’s got — the bell clangs.
“Good job!” she says. Her smile hurts; the boy squirms and she sets him down. They continue past the pigpens to the house.
The farmhands, young college graduates on a rural summer jaunt, shimmy out of their raingear. In the kitchen they find Jo fussing over a pot of curried stew. She looks up at them with an inscrutable gleam in her eyes.
“My long-lost cousin stopped by for a visit,” she says, and introduces them to Mary, who is perched warily at the table, and Will, who is slouched next to her, cap jammed down almost over his eyes. The children are playing happily with the skittish sheepdogs. When the farmhands register the boy, their eyes take on the same gleam as Jo’s.
“Hungry?” Jo says. She ladles out stew. Will stares at his steaming bowl while everyone else digs in and the kids, too excited to sit, scamper around the house exploring.
“You actually make money off this — organic business?” Will says.
“We’re more concerned about feeding ourselves,” Jo says.
The children burst back into the kitchen, the boy crying “Vroooom!” Jo’s breath catches. He has found a vacuum attachment and shoved it onto the stump of his right arm, where the hand would have been.
“I’m Vacuum Boy!” he says. “I got superhero cleaning powers!” Jo and the farmhands erupt into laughter, the kind strong enough to conceal what’s behind it. The boy zooms around the room, vacuuming.
“You missed a spot by the sofa,” Jo says. There is laughter until there is silence.
“It was a year ago,” Mary says. “Machinery accident.”
“Lord,” Jo says.
“Sometimes they can reattach them. But his didn’t get sliced off so much as — sucked.”
Jo sees Will looking at the farmhands. The young man is brown and soft; the woman white with dreadlocked hair. Jo knows just what Will thinks of them.
“He gets along,” Will says.
The young hands, who have been looking at their stew, accidentally catch each others’ eyes. The exchange is quick, but something about it makes Jo feel so suddenly lonely that she stands, chair squealing against the floor.
“Pickles!” she says and goes over to the pantry where they store the jarred remains of last year’s crops. She closes the door behind her, just in time for the tears to spill hot and thick down her cheeks.