Monday, June 13, 2011

Meet My Mother, The Orient Express

From the backchannels of this blog, I've been requested by two Lisas to try the following things on my journey. First Lisa, knowing I am going to Berlin (with friends that I will hopefully be able to persuade into splurging on this), wants me to stay at CasaCamper, which also has a hotel in Barcelona. This is what the Berlin hotel looks like:

Considering the apartment I have rented in Paris (in the 12th arrondisement, in the Bastille and near the Marais) is 10'x18' and has a hot plate screwed into the wall for a kitchen, I'm happy to oblige. In fact, this hotel might save my life.

Second Lisa suggested that, while in Turkey, I might visit a hammam. For those of you who want to know what a hammam looks like, it looks like this.

Yes, please, Lisa! (Aside: Considering my fairly intense boundary issues, I love a bathhouse. I am an avid self-exfoliator. I've scrubbed down in a number of ofuros in Japan, and also had the good luck to visit a banya in St. Petersburg, where I sat around with a bunch of other writers, smacking my naked self stupid with birch and eucalyptus branches until I came out pink as a pig and smelling of Certs.)

So thank you, Lisas!

But the winner of the Totally Vicarious Living Project to date is my mother. One of the many things I love about my mother is that she doesn't do vicarious. She prefers to live it, not read about it. So when I called the other week during lunch and told her what my friends had so far suggested I do (drive the Nubergring, see an exhibition on Winnipeg in Paris, get my ears picked, eat a meal of rat-cancer causing beans), my mother chewed thoughtfully on her sandwich for a moment and then said, "Your friends don't really like you."

"Well," I sniffed. "What would YOU do?"

"I'd ride the Orient Express," she said.

Now this is funny, because my father and I have two private nicknames for my (Chinese American) mother, who is famous in our family for her impulsive, mostly hilarious but sometimes unnerving outbursts of temper. One of them is Old Yeller, the other is The Orient Express.

"I don't know if I can handle more Orient Express," I told her.

"Never mind that," my mother snapped. "I'm thinking that with this year ahead of you, wasting time on beans is silly. You should do something grand."

"I can't afford grand," I said. "I can afford fair-to-middling. Grand gets me a month in Europe, tops."

"Well, who knows," my mother said, mysteriously, signing off. "Who can tell such things."

A week later, my mother called to inform me what I was doing this year. Actually, what she was doing this year, and what I was now invited to accompany her on: a ride from Paris to Venice on The Orient Express. The tickets had already been purchased. We are leaving at the end of October.

Many of you are probably surprised The Orient Express goes to Venice. It turns out "The Orient Express" is a species of train travel, not a specific route: you can take The Orient Express almost anywhere in Europe, as it's basically a luxury liner on wheels that only people who have totally taken leave of their financial senses would ever ride. Were I to tell you how much it costs for a single night, you would shut down this blog, run right out and join the Young Socialists to start rioting in the streets. I was shocked, SHOCKED I tell you, when I saw the e-ticket receipt, and told my mother the only way such a train journey could be worth this ludicrous amount were if a well-muscled, nimble-fingered young man named Dimitri showed up around midnight with massage oils, handcuffs and a tray of martinis. And even THEN I would think it was overpriced, because I hate getting massages. (But I love drinking martinis in front of a man in handcuffs!)

Still, like I said, this is what I love about my mother, and it's this sort of impulsivity that typifies our relationship. All my life I've provided my mother with the perfect excuse to do exactly what she wants, whether it be staying in bed all day to watch romantic movies or shopping on Rodeo Drive or river rafting in Jamaica or riding hot air balloons over the Willamette valley. My father hates travel, shopping, romantic comedies and spending money, so I get to be my mother's perpetual side-kick, the depressive Robin to her manic Batman. "Can we AFFORD that?" I whinge. "Won't that little balloon KILL us?"" To which my mother, ever the optimist, giggles, "Stop being such a Norwegian."

(My father, a.k.a. "The Norwegian," is probably relieved I'm willing to accompany my mother on these precariously conceived junkets, from which he has learned never to try and dissuade her. The only time he tried reining her in was during the ferocious "Dessert First!" campaign my mother waged during my childhood, when she badgered my father into letting us all begin our meals out with Root Beer floats. My father thought this was a bad dietary example to set until he realized--as everyone who knows me since has realized--Dessert First! made absolutely no dent in my appetite for Dinner Later. In fact, the only thing that would ever STOP me from eating were raw tomatoes and canned water chestnuts. My mother, stymied by the tomato problem, spent hours at the dinner table first exhorting, then wheedling, then heckling me to try one, just ONE until, in a fit of exasperation, she finally fell back on her specious logic skills. "You NEED to eat them," she yelled, after I spat another cold, raw slice onto the table, "BECAUSE TOMATOES STRENGTHEN YOUR WRISTS!"

To this day, my father and I have never let her live that down.

I have since learned to withstand raw tomatoes, but my problem with canned water chestnuts remains. When I was growing up, my mother made a lot of Chinese food, but not the fun, kid-friendly Chinese food you get in restaurants, like sweet and sour pork. It was salty steamed egg custard with black beans, or vats of congee, or oxtail soup. Basically, my mother fed my father and me like we were 80 year-olds who'd lost all their teeth. But the worst, the WORST, was the fried tofu with pork and canned water chestnuts. The pork was fine, the tofu bearable: it was the canned water chestnuts, with their consistency of rotted rice and the taste of paste, that nearly killed me.

And it wasn't helped by the fact that water chestnuts seemed to be in everything my uncle's new family made each Christmas. In the early 80's, my Uncle King married a woman with a large Chinese family that had recently emigrated from Malaysia to Seattle. Every Christmas, we'd gather at my Uncle King's house on Capital Hill to eat a buffet-style banquet of Christmas treats his new family had cooked in celebration of their adopted homeland. "Christmas with Malaysians!" my dad would cry, and we'd all pile into the dining room to help ourselves to turkeys that tasted of soy sauce and rice cookers full of sticky rice with lapchang and vats of cole slaw (because Americans seemed to like that at picnics and who doesn't love a picnic?), and bowls of Christmas cookies cut in the shapes of menoras. Then we'd finish it all with my grandmother's jello and cream cheese squares and, finally, a platter of pound cake that our friends Bob and Carol, a bewildered interracial couple from the South who had no other family now but us and the Malaysians, had brought.

But everything, EVERYTHING, on that table seemed to have water chestnuts in it, alongside it, or just lurking nearby in little condiment bowls. I blame Bing Crosby for this, actually, since Uncle King's first Christmas party involved playing "The Christmas Song" over and over, until the phrase "chestnuts roasting over an open fire" stuck in everyone's heads, and clearly must have become something the Malaysians--desperate to assimilate into their new country--took too closely to heart.)

So anyway, here I am, fat from the floats and financially nervous, planning to ride The Orient Express as part of my mother's Totally Vicarious Living Project. At the end of October, please think of me worriedly downing a tray of martinis in front of a hog-tied Dimitri, watching as my mother lolls, unabashed, in the lap of luxury. I'm pretty sure I'll be the one carrying all the baggage.

But at least my wrists are strong.


  1. Explaining to your mother about drinking martinis in front of bound Dmitri -- the group visit to last year's Folsom Street Fair is making more sense now. I'm sure that's one of the events that will make you homesick, but with a Ryanair flight to Berlin you can make it to:


    Am 10. September 2011 geht FOLSOM EUROPE in die achte Runde. Von 12.00 bis 21.00 Uhr veranstalten wir wieder Europa´s größtes Leder- und Fetischevent. über 25.000 Besucher aus aller Welt werden erwartet.

    Einzelheiten beim

  2. Yeah, my far-flung beloved and I had this great idea that we would do the Paris-Venice ride on the OE. Until we saw the price tag. Dmitri would have to transform himself at the end of the night into a new motorcycle before I'd stop feeling that ticket.