Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On Envy

 Several months ago at a dinner party, a writer came up to me and the party host and asked if either of us had ever felt envious. The writer had just come from her writing group, where one of the other fiction writers had begun tearing into a third writer's work in a surprisingly hostile manner. The writer whose work was up for discussion that afternoon is a very successful fiction writer: so successful that movies have been made from her novels. So successful that she was in fact the recent answer to a Jeopardy! question that the surprisingly hostile writer in the group had just happened to see that afternoon on her way out the door to her writing group. The surprisingly hostile writer, in contrast, had been working on a series of teen novels that seemed to be going nowhere, and which her agent had recently suggested she might consider either scrapping, or revising so heavily that they resembled another series of novels entirely.


So you can imagine just what might have been going through the less successful writer's mind when this other writer's work was on the table.

To her credit, the surprisingly hostile writer came clean to the writer telling me this story; she apologized for her outburst (well, apologized to the writer at the party, not the writer she'd attacked) and said that there were just some days she could barely function from all the envy she was feeling.

The writer at the party then asked me if my writing group ever had this problem (No, I told her, we're poets; we're in jeopardy, not ON Jeopardy!) and whether or not I had personally ever felt envy for another writer. 

"Sure," I said. "Envy is pretty natural. I mean, who doesn't envy someone for some astounding success achieved completely unfairly, because if it was really fair, then obviously that success would have gone to me, ha ha ha ha?"

No one laughed.

Sweating, I continued. "Well, obviously, I'm joking," I said. "But really, no, I do get envious, but my envy is sort of hard to predict now. I used to be envious all the time when I was younger, and feeling powerless, and worried that I would never get anything finished and, if finished, never published. But now that I've done these things, I find that I'm envious about harder to define things, you know, not necessarily buckets of money and fame, which of course occasionally give me twinges of despair for not having them when I see someone else getting these things, but really just writing confidently, and well and fluidly, without any of the troughs of self-doubt that make it hard to write some days."

No one said anything.

"I suppose," I continued, clearing my throat and trying again, "it's a good thing I'm a poet since--with rare exceptions--there really is no big-stakes money or fame. But mostly if I do feel envious of somebody, it's more to do with whether or not I felt that I DIDN'T have a shot at getting what they had. For instance," I said (really babbling now), "if I applied for something someone else gets, oddly I DON'T feel envious of the winner because I had the opportunity of trying for it. It's the people who get things that I can't compete for myself who make me want to gnaw my fingers off, except in two instances: 1. If I know they really really needed that money and they're generally good writers, or 2. I don't like their writing in the least."

Here I took a breath. The hostess' eyes had begun to glaze over.

The other writer widened her eyes. "Huh!" she said. "How interesting. Myself, I guess I just never feel envy. Do you?" she asked, turning to the party hostess.

"No," the party hostess said, smiling with relief to be confronted with something finally comprehensible. "Not me!"

"I'm just happy to have so many famous friends," the other writer said. "It makes me feel that, if I'm surrounded by awesome and successful people, I must be in some way awesome and successful, too. You know?"

"Exactly!" chirped the party host. "I'm just so happy for my friends who do well. It makes me feel so good for them! I don't understand how people could ever feel angry towards their friends."



I stood there, the bubbles fizzing slowly out of my Prosecco. I was beginning to understand exactly how people could feel so angry towards their friends. Because here I'd just been suckered into admitting something awful about myself, something the moral equivalent of having shit your pants while stuck in the car during heavy traffic, perhaps, while these two cheerful party brutes were cackling away about how Ghandhi-like they had collectively become. Perhaps, if I really thought about it, these two would now head my list of people most likely to be envied. But I didn't want to think about it like that, because thinking like that would require not only that I be a more generous, less cynical person, but would demand that the two women standing before me were not, in fact, humans at all but demi-gods come to earth for the sole purpose of ruining other people's party experiences.

As it was, it seemed two options were available to me.

1. These women were utterly vacuous and/or deluded about the state of their own emotional lives which they had to constantly suppress, thus suggesting that they were, in fact, really, really angry, probably the angriest people I've ever met OR

2. These women were lying.

It seemed pretty clear that these women were lying. In fact, in one instance, I know for sure that one of these women was lying because I've heard her say some not very nice things about other people, particularly other women, and if there's one thing I've learned about women, it's that they often say not nice very things about other women they envy, UNLESS that woman is so beautiful and/or personally amazing that to be catty about her would immediately reveal the true nature behind said catty comments, thus the envious woman ends up praising out of all proportion the many charms of the object of envy, but in language measured carefully to indicate to the observant listener that the same piece praise is also damning disparagement, as in, "I'm so impressed by how beautiful her hair always looks! It must take her THE WHOLE DAY getting it to look like that!"

It's exhausting, sometimes, being a woman.

I'm thinking about envy now because, weirdly, I've had a number of conversations about envy this year. One of the most notable was with a friend in Paris who asked, while on a bus to an art exhibition out near Provins, whether I'd ever envied another writer.

I tensed, waiting for the trap.

"I guess," I hedged. "Maybe? Do you?"

"All the time!" she admitted cheerfully, and we proceeded to talk (with relief) about the writers that we envied, and why, and then moved on to the many oddly productive side effects of a certain kind of envy; namely, the envy we feel for a really good piece of writing which in fact inspired us to write a more ambitious piece ourselves. This kind of envy is generally about the quality about the work and has to be distinguished from the less useful type of envy, which is only about professional status. That kind of envy, we both agreed, gets you nowhere, and has to be mapped and avoided, like flaming sinkholes on the edges of your subconsciousness.

But the other envy, we agreed, might have something to it.


It made me almost feel sorry then for those women at the party who said they felt no envy at all. Wouldn't they get bored, I thought, being so happy all the time with other people's achievements?

Who knows. I never got to ask. I was too busy imagining putting their heads in a blender.

The other notable conversation about envy I had was with a fellow poet from the States traveling to Paris to get some writing done. I don't really know this writer outside of his work, but we got together for dinner and a lot of drinks with some other folks after a reading and somewhere during the dinner, the topic of frustration and despair worked its way into the conversation, as it always seems to do when at least two writers are put  together. Soon the visiting writer was talking very openly about some difficulties he'd experienced with a book project. I was impressed that he would talk about this, as most successful artistic types (and, stereotypically, most successful male artistic types) tend to avoid stories that put them in any kind of professionally vulnerable light. It was a generous thing to do and express to the other younger writers at the table, but what became most interesting to me was how deeply familiar his envy-triggers were to the rest of us.

Because he--like me--most envied the people who exude the confidence that whatever they produce, it will be worthwhile. Perhaps these people don't really exist in the world; however, I'm persuaded to believe that certain writers do have more sense of self-possession and confidence, something that allows them to be more ambitious in their own work. Something that Kathryn Chetkovich, famous both for being Jonathan Franzen's partner and for penning the essay "Envy" about the problems of this particular relationship, totally nails.

This permission doesn't have to come from outside validation, either; in fact, the greatest envy I feel is for people who appear to gain that sense of validation entirely on their own. That, if it is in fact the case for them and I'll never really know since I tend never to ask people these kinds of questions about their personal lives, prefering instead to talk about what kind of cars they drive or their latest venereal disease, seems to me the greatest professional talent, and the hardest one to attain.


Perhaps--as Chetkovich points out in her essay--there is something gendered to this gift as well, though I have seen a number of women who possess it and--if I'm going to be brutally honest with myself here-- I've envied them far more bitterly than I ever have any of the self-possessed men. That is the worst part and kind of envy, I think, and it reveals exactly how much I've let sexism shape my own attitudes about success and literary entitlement.

As a list-maker by nature, I find it useful to jot down the things that may or may not be worth spending time on. The list of writers and qualities that may be worth envying is too long to quote from here, so I'll just leave you with the list of things I know are total wastes of caloric energy but which continue to send me into frothy tailspins of self-hatred.

1. Anyone who is 5'8" or taller and has the arms of Linda Hamilton circa The Terminator

2. Frederick Seidel's stock portfolio

3. Airstream owners

4. The Facebook lives of two distant acquaintances who will go unnamed here but whose online photo albums are filled with happy family escapades on semi-rural tracts of land on which children snack on organic carrot cakes and the freshly laid, hardboiled eggs of French spotted chickens which have been raised in newly refurbished barns carefully painted by the attractive spouses and/or partners of said friends, now photographed lounging--bucolically--on quirky, hand-made quilts. These photos flood me both with the teary, cyber-stalkish longing for a grain silo of my own and the sad sad knowledge that I can never and will never grow anything I actually want to eat, because until Swanson's Hungry Man Salisbury Steak dinner comes in shrub form, I'm going to fucking starve here, and finally

5. People who can ice skate.




Lastly, I should admit the oddest thing I've discovered about envy this year, which is that intense love can not only make one can envy the person one loves most in the world but also, in an odd twist of the heart, inspire soul-wrenching jealousy for the former or future version of one's own life. Watching a severely sunburned Sean pack up his things after our disastrous honeymoon, I am filled with a dark, resounding envy: envy both for him (for getting to go home), and for the previous iteration of me (Me 1.1, circa August 2011 perhaps) that once (how thoughtlessly this version of me took it for granted!)--got to curl up next to him in bed every night. On top of that is the odder, slightly surreal sensation I have even now of envying my present self from some distant point in the future. In a few months, I'll be going home too, ecstatic to return to Sean and my dogs and my home, but also knowing that this year is over, and that this amazing freedom I've been given--disorienting and aggravating as it has occasionally been--is finished. I'll be glad for it to end, but part of me will be sad as well, sad that--for all the places I've visited--I know that I could have visited yet more. Or visited these places more consciously. So many of the things I've seen have been, for lack of a better term, mitigated by the effects of not quite believing my luck.  Sometimes I'm so startled by the fact that I'm here, living like this, that I have a hard time concentrating on the present. Which robs me, just a little, of the joy. 

Whatever, I can hear you muttering. You'll get over it.

In the meantime, you can see--via these totally gratuitous photos of Phu Quoc, Vietnam,  that I've been sprinkling throughout this post (yes, where Sean and I have been residing in An! Actual! Bungalow! On! The! Beach! before he returns home)--just where I am having problems with that particular out-of-body envy experience.


I know, dear reader. But take heart:

You can feel about this any way that you want.

Friday, January 27, 2012

In Sickness and In Sickness: A Honeymooner's Travelogue


First, the good news. 





It turns out that Hanoi is NOT like the rest of Vietnam, or vice-versa, thus every place Sean and I have traveled so far on our Honeymoon of the Damned (more on that later) has gotten more beautiful, more lush and certainly more navigable, and (most delightfully) filled with better and better food. 

 A few readers have emailed me about the photos of food I've been including, complaining that the pornographic quality to my food posts are a particularly cruel form of torture, as I've now provided them with the gustatory itch they can never hope to scratch, an itch perhaps especially plaguing to those in Salt Lake City, a place which, though filled with a number of very fine restaurants, has nothing Vietnamese-wise that can compare. To them, I offer my sincere condolences and would promise to stop posting photos of food except (again, so sorry!):

I can't.  

So (cruelly) pictures of the great street food I've been eating will be nestled in here, maybe--yes--like little bombs of soul-crushing culinary disappointment for you to experience. Who knows. How you, dear reader, take it is up to you.

Now, onto the bad news.



Sean and I have been in Sa Pa for a week, hiking around the tiered rice fields and generally being engaged in  two somewhat culturally dubious activities, the first being what the local tourist bureau calls "Ethnic Minority Viewing" and the second being honeymooning. "Ethnic Minority Viewing," rather like honeymooning itself, is an eye-opening but occasionally stressful activity, as it forces you to engage in behaviors outside your comfort zone, like negotiating with a half-dressed 10 year-old for a pair of earrings or, in the case of honeymooning, having your picture taken together in front of a water buffalo. "Ethnic Minority Viewing"  serves continually to remind you of--even as it attempts to make you forget--the role you play as a tourist. The fact that, in any nation today, a four year-old child's first instinct upon seeing a stranger might be to say, in English, "Yes, you buy! Yes, where you from? Yes, you buy from me, please," is incredibly depressing. Not as depressing, perhaps, as coming across the naked baby slumped by its mother who, when seeing you, automatically lifts an upturned palm to you in the universal sign of begging, but pretty damn close. 

And of course, there is always the question about the value of seeing what it is you're seeing. Or, as I put it to Sean the afternoon we hiked around the lower part of Cat Cat valley, "Why exactly does everyone think travel is such a great thing to do anyway? I mean, what exactly is it good for?" At the time I was asking this, Sean and I had just stopped for drinks at a tiny, derelict stand by the river where we stayed to observe some pre-Tet village life unscroll before us, including watching a group of young men trundle a pig trussed on a bamboo stretcher up a hill. ("That's a journey a pig makes only once in its life, I think," Sean said grimly, after they passed.) There were chickens to be killed, sacks of rice to be carried off, whole loads of bamboo to be cut and marched up the various hillsides. Meanwhile an array of children ranging from infancy (naked from the waist down due to lack of diapers: an ingenious if unsanitary way of dealing with the toiletry issue) to somewhere around seven years old stealthily began to crowd around Sean and me where we were sitting. The kids, at first totally indifferent to our presence except as potential buyers, had slowly come to regard us as objects of increasing interest, as in "What exactly ARE two fat Americans doing up here, sitting and drinking warm cans of year-old diet Coke?"

The short answer was: We were lost.

And lost, to a certain extent, we stayed. 

Because traveling in a third, or second, or developing-world nation like Vietnam, you can get pretty exhausted by the hard sell that is one's day-to-day experience in the smaller towns: a hard sell that's as necessary for the local merchants as it is totally soul-besmirching for the tourists. At the end of the day, anonymity like what we had just barely begun to experience that day by the river is something to be longed for and given up as a pipe-dream as fantastical as the one of you might have of imagining that you are the first foreigner to have visited this region of choice. You, of course, are NOT the first visitor to this region: you are in fact just following the paths of so many other tourists who have made their way here, seeing what everyone else has seen, buying what others have bought, doing what so many others have done. If you are one of the "nicer" tourists, perhaps you have refused to photograph the H'Mong without their consent; if you are one of the "artier" tourists, perhaps you've begun carefully cropping your photos to make it seem as if all modern technology is absent to the region. Regardless, you are those kids' meal ticket, and traveling to their far-flung hamlet is, for you at least, all about "improving" yourself by being witness to a kind of poverty which, if borderline globally abject, is at least presumed to be aesthetically pleasing. When I ask "What is travel good for," perhaps I should amend this question to "WHO is travel good for?" The answer to that is complex, as of course tourists do make a region more economically stable, at the same time it might make it culturally unstable. But what exactly does the tourist think she's getting?


The more I sat there, talking with Sean, looking at the kids looking at us, all of us inching closer and closer to each other on our bench filled with our cans of Cokes and our capped cameras, the more I was intrigued by the whole notion of tourism throughout history. Maybe, I said to Sean, the only difference between the American traveler of the 19th Century and now is  that, the 19th Century, travel was meant to be improving the American traveler through exposure to cultures assumed to be culturally "greater" than that of America. Now, it's about improving the American through the visual cataloguing of places and people that are economically far far worse off.

"Maybe," Sean replied. Just as one of the kids lunged forward to show Sean his new and totally fabulous toy: a spinning jenny made of clay, around which a grimy piece of rope had been wrapped.

It kind of reminds me of that definition of documentary studies I read years ago in The Michigan Quarterly Review. Documentary: behind the camera, someone with a grant; in front of the camera, someone on food stamps.


And here I was, with my camera and my grant.

Anyway, traveling together through these areas, both Sean and I had to admit that we both felt kind of, well, ill. Both literally ill--as Sean had arrived with a vicious cold cleverly imported from the States, which I quickly caught--and figuratively ill, as now we were trolling around these gorgeous regions feeling like economic parasites.

That was the good news this week.

The less good news is the fact that, two days after Sean arrived, I had to drag him to the doctor's office to deal with a recurring but very minor ear issue I'd been dealing with since France, then the very next day had to find ANOTHER medical clinic to get antibiotics for Sean who, swiftly upon his arrival to Vietnam came down with a sinus infection. So here we were on our honeymoon, one of us with his pockets stuffed with antibiotics, the other with her nose turned to a meat-colored, leaking spigot. 

But at least we were still eating.



And at least Hoi An, which we traveled to later, was beautiful as well. 



And then, a miracle: three WHOLE days that neither of us were ill! We were ecstatic. To celebrate, we went to find a street food stall that specialized in those fabulous rice paper "roll ups" of BBQ pork, fresh herbs, cucumber and a spicy peanut dipping sauce I'd fallen in love with. (Thanks for the rec, Linh!) It was fantastic. If you have  never had the experience of eating a food that you knew within minutes you were genetically destined to eat, food that the gods themselves had created with you in mind and which had perhaps been specifically designed for your very SOUL, then you need to go to Hoi An, find Ba Le Well restaurant, sit down and prepare to be served.

It was so good, with its steaming and endless piles of succulent BBQ pork on skewers, its heaps of fresh sesame leaves and basil and mint and cucumber slices, it's piping hot nem ga, its bowls of peanut dipping sauce, that I couldn't stop eating LONG ENOUGH TO TAKE A PICTURE. That's how good it was. 

So imagine my disappointment then, when I looked across the table at my beloved husband, himself happily chewing on a freshly rolled pile of piggy goodness, and saw--with horror--his face instantly pale.

I knew, even before he told me, that he'd broken a tooth.



And now, dear reader, I was faced with a terrible choice. Do I stay, or do I put down my food, get up from the table, and rush my husband off to find the nearest dentist? Of course, I knew I should do the latter.

But that would mean putting down the pork.

"Oh my God!" I cried, with as much sympathy as I could muster while AT THE SAME TIME shoving another whole hot roll into my mouth. "Let me just arghjhrgurmpgingksheowfhkhsarghjeherg!" I cried, or tried to, as now my mouth was full of food. 

Sean sat staring, numbly, at the broken crown he'd just spit into his hand.

"Oh, honey, what terrible armnunumnumnumnum!" I tried again, while finding that my hand (again) had managed to stuff yet another roll into my pork-roll hole.

I think that phrase came out wrong.

Anyway, there I was, trying desperately both to comfort my shocked and less toothsome husband and to Leave No BBQ Behind, because--as I told Sean, who'd begun clearing up the shards of his cracked tooth--it would be a crime, a CRIME I say!, to leave so much pig on the table. "Think about those children in Sa Pa!" I think I tried to say, in some sort of dubious and completely ill-conceived fit of moral do-goodery, but by then Sean had paid for the bill and was waiting for me in the alley so we could go off to find, yes, our third medical clinic in two weeks.

"Well, even if this honeymoon kind of sucked the life out of us," I told him later, "at least, we can say our travels really DID improve us, medically speaking."

Sean sighed and kissed my head. "You smell like pork," he told me.



Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Linh Nguyen Situation

So. It's coming up on Tet.

The lunar New Year celebration is a big one in Vietnam: so big that everything pretty much shuts down, and many shops and services not just for one or two days but--depending on where you go and who you ask--anywhere between one to two weeks. Right now, I'm busy stocking up on groceries for the days I'll be stuck at home, unable to indulge in my two latest hobbies: eating street food and trying to get across the road.

Since I left you, dear reader, I have spent an inordinate amount of time in airline ticket agencies trying to reverse some faulty last-minute hotel reservations online, learning how I might spell my name out more clearly to Vietnamese sales agents over the phone ("P as in Portugal, A as in Australia, I as in Italy, S as in Spain, L as in Laos, E as in England, Y as in Yemen!") and hanging out at the local health clinic, muttering in bad French as the doctor digs wax out of my pollution-induced-sickness-led-to-horribly-now-clogged ears.


Anyway, let's start with the good news:

Sean's here!!!!!

And though Sean is here only a few weeks, he has already made life significantly better. For instance, because Sean is English and either lacks the gene for fear or for conscious thought, he can lead me fearlessly through traffic.

And because Sean spent a significant period of his life as a rock climber, he also knows a lot of interesting folks in the world, one of whom--Linh Nguyen, a fellow ex-climber--lives in Hanoi.

Linh happens to like to eat.


Which is good, because when I get stressed out from travel (or depressed or tired or bored or happy or upset or, you know, basically awake) I like to eat, too.

(Yes, these are frog legs.)

(Yes, this looks dull, but--like so many good things here--it's filled with pork.)

(No, those are not gummy worms, and, yes, this dessert tastes way better than it looks.)

The only thing we haven't gotten a chance to eat yet are the famous sandwiches about which I've been dreaming: sandwiches Linh insists can't be found in any form worth eating until we head south, towards Hoi An. Actually, most of the food we've been eating, Linh says, is far superior in the south, something I'm going to have the chance to discover in the coming weeks. But here in Hanoi, there are still delights to be had. Linh has taken us into lovely local cafés tucked far away between buildings with amazing views of the city, or wonderful little street restaurants, or--in one case--a local writer/artist's studio. Linh has essentially made Sean and me his pet project for the past few days, while also teaching us some Vietnamese and explaining some of the mysteries that are Vietnam.

For instance, those loudspeakers blaring out what sound like political rants-cum-motivational speeches followed--occasionally--by the melifluous strains of what I like to call "The Vietnamese Enya"? They are, yes, political propaganda but they function also as "neighborhood bulletins" in which information like changed garbage collection times and new parking laws are explained. They are also, interestingly, useful opportunities for a little friendly neighborhood shaming, as people are occasionally singled out for neighborhood violations. Something like: "Mrs. Nguyen in Block A: You need to start cleaning up after your chickens because they're crapping all over the street and they are DRIVING THE REST OF US CRAZY. YOU GOT THAT, MRS. NGUYEN IN THE RED DRESS WHO LIVES IN BLOCK A, APARTMENT 212C?"

And those people dumping bags of goldfish into the local lakes? It is not, as I previously thought, some form of futile catch-and-release program involving the local pet shops, but evidently a Tet-specific ritual meant to honor the kitchen gods.

And the horrible traffic? Even it can't stop a whole troupe from the local martial arts club preparing to head to the local park for their Tet dragon dance rehearsals. That's right: twelve men carrying an enormous dragon on a stick can STILL evidently dance and weave their way without pause or terror across five lanes of rush-hour traffic.

And those flakes of ash drifting down the block? It's time to burn paper money and other emblems of good fortune as part of a welcoming ceremony for one's ancestors.

Basically, Linh has been saving my ass here. And showing me some of the things that, I am slowly beginning to recall, are the reasons I initially moved here.

Thank. God.

In the meantime, I'm getting ready to depart the horrors of Hanoi at rush hour ("Hannoying" being Sean's new catch word) to travel with Sean for a kind of late-date honeymoon to Sapa, then on to Hoi An and Phu Quoc. To hang on the beach, drink, eat a little. Let my ears recover, maybe.

But a big "thank you" to Linh for his help in the meantime. And for the food recommendations. I promise: I'll hold off on the sandwiches until Hoi An.

After that, however, all bets are off.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Speed Dating Hanoi

There are times in your life when you have a profound reaction to a person or place: a feeling so violently immediate it feels like spiritual vomiting. I had one such reaction the other day after landing in Hanoi, jet-lagged after my planeslog from Istanbul to Doha to Bangkok (there to suffer through a six-hour layover in a food court filled with fat Russians and two teen whores), then finally on to Vietnam. My reaction was this:

I fucking hate this place.

It was, obviously, not a pleasant reaction. It was certainly not expected. I have--since the very moment I got off the phone with the trust's lawyer--been anxiously, droolingly planning for my arrival here. Vietnam was my non-negotiable: the veritable Bucket to my Bucket List. And now here I was, at last in the country, and all I could think about was how long I had to stay before I could find a cheap enough plane ticket to leave.

And why, you ask?

Perhaps because my Bucket List resembled an Anthony Bourdain episode by way of The Scent of Green Papaya and Marguerite Duras. But the reality of Hanoi is more madhouse than North Sea China Lover: The No Reservations Episode. Hoan Khiem, the old quarter, the very heart of "graceful, old Vietnam" (or so says the Lonely Planet Guidebook, curse them) is filled with grimed warrens of shops below crumbling apartment buildings, piles of trash, motorbikes parked in houdstooth-rows up and down the walks, scents of garbage, scents of urine, shit, women swinging baskets of mangos on shoulder-poles at your stomach, taxis, motorbikes, taxis, buses, people on stools, people shouting, people pressing up to you to see if you'll look in their shops, try on their shirts, buy their handkerchiefs, buy their sunblock, buy their bowls of pho. There are birds in cages everywhere, tiny markets, kittens in a box, something boiling in a pot, something steaming in a cart, something spilling from a café entrance. The air is so impenetrable with fog that at Tay Ho lake you can barely see the buildings less than 3 miles away on the other shore, and every street is a continual roar of honking horns.  

But the real problem-- the most obvious problem--is the traffic.

Imagine, if you will, a city in which almost every person rides a motorbike, there are no traffic stop signs, no speed limits, few sidewalks, no sense of lanes or oncoming or outgoing traffic, only two stop lights within 20 square miles, and no one has EVER read a driving handbook. Then make sure every motorbike is laden with at least two people wearing face masks and a full-grown orange tree strapped to the back seat and you might have something that begins to resemble Hanoi.



Oh, and then imagine trying to go for a walk.


It's funny that I wrote about faith a couple of posts back, because until I reached Hanoi I had no idea what real religious faith consists of. Real religious faith is walking out into a veritable hurricane of motorbikes and taxis coming from every conceivable direction (INCLUDING the sidewalk), putting one foot firmly and slowly in front of the other as everyone tries their best not to hit you EXCEPT for the taxi drivers, who evidently get 10 points for every pedestrian they clip, and the bus drivers, who are big enough that they get to rule the street. You must continue in a straight line, because to go back means that the bikes who have swirled behind you as a method of avoidance will now crash into someone else were they to change direction, and to go sideways means that you will get hit by yet another stream of traffic busy turning left (or right, as the case may be) and trying to cut into the tiny opening your presence has now opened in the wave of traffic. Hanoi, like nature itself, abhores a vacuum, and if there is a space of about two feet anywhere in this city, Hanoians will drive on it, park on it, cook on it or spit on it. You, in your own hard-won two feet of space in the street, must protect that space in order to protect your very life, and if you begin to freak out and stop moving, the taxi WILL hit you, or hit what's left of you after the bus has had its way, and if you move too quickly, the bikes will run over your feet. And if you stop and, like me, start very nearly to cry, the people on the other side of the street watching you will begin to applaud.

Here, I should perhaps mention that, in my life to date,  I have been hit twice by cars. No, not the same car, smart ass: two DIFFERENT cars, at two different times in my life. I am a twitchy, anxious person in traffic as a result, so now you can imagine why, on any Hanoi street, I might be shrieking and jumping up and down, ranting like Mel Gibson at the methadone clinic where he has just been asked to join their St. Vitus's Dance Off.

Added to this are the many other charms of Hanoi, namely the city's Cocktail Hour of Propaganda, as every day from 5-6 someone gets on the loudspeakers to blare out some long rant that may or may not be political in nature, and the spine-dissolving levels of MSG in some of the restaurants that have me wilting and sweating in my seat, and the fact that the city's extraordinary pollution levels have, in two days only, given me a hacking cough. 

Why did people tell me I had to live here exactly?

And why, even more bafflingly, am I going through the motions of setting up house? Depressed, shell-shocked, day by day I go about the basics of survival. Finding an apartment near Ba Dingh, near the embassies (nice place: cheap, beautiful, light-filled, totally clean AND IT COMES WITH A MAID SERVICE), getting a phone, ordering drinking water for the apartment, mapping out where the bookstores and good cafés are, finding the markets. Going so far even as to find a gym in the area (picture me, surrounded by 15 sweaty middle-aged Vietnamese guys in a weight room, each of them hollering questions, so excited are they by the prospect of me joining their gym: "How old you are! How tall you are! How much you weigh!" Oh God. I hope these were meant to be questions.). Why am I doing this if I hate this place so much?



Well, obviously I'm a masochist of some sort. I mean, I did spend three years in academic administration.

And I'm also--and this is hard to explain--sort of fascinated by the depth of my revulsion for the place. I can't believe I'm feeling it at all, actually: I half doubt that this is about Vietnam and not the violent disruption of leaving Paris. Or the exhaustion of nearly a full month of visitors and traveling. Or the anxious waiting for Sean to arrive so that we can see each other again. Something, anything, other than just the shock of arriving in a third world nation. Because if it is just that sort of shock, well then: THAT I can get over.

Interestingly, the last time I felt such revulsion was the only other time I pursued something that made absolutely no sense to me, and that activity was Speed Dating. After I got divorced, I did what a lot of divorcées do and totally gave up common sense. Actually, to a recent divorcée, Speed Dating might make some kind of sense, because if you can't pick the right mate with careful planning and the help of a good serotonin reuptake inhibitor, you might as well try it at a bar with 18 hyperactive legal secretaries and an IV's worth of Singapore Slings. At least, this was my reasoning at the time.

ANYHOO, over the course of that disastrous evening, I learned two important things:

1) Six minutes is an eternity actually


2) Anyone can get to the point of telling someone else to fuck off within less than a minute of meeting them.

So. That's good to know.

Also, honestly, I'm just curious. What WOULD it be like to live in such a madhouse like Hanoi? What would it be like to experience, if even for a fraction of time, the kind of conditions that 3/4 of the world has to live with everyday? Now that I write this, it strikes me that Speed Dating might be the perfect analogy for my year abroad, because money and the security of my life back home--like the Speed Dating set-up itself--has provided me with the luxury of imagination: the ability to experience the rapid highs and lows of about a dozen different relationships without the necessity, or risk, of committing to any one of them. Do I like this potential boyfriend? This one? This one? 

But perhaps this analogy is stupidly dangerous, since--let's be clear here--there should never be any glamour in sticking with a bad relationship. No matter how hard Sex and the City has tried to suggest otherwise. 

So, bafflingly, discombobulatingly--with odi et amo and a four-month lease--meet Hanoi, dear reader: my newest boyfriend.

I really fucking hate him.



Sunday, January 8, 2012

Istanbul: Part II. I Get My Tourist On

Sometimes the dream of being more than just a tourist is impossible to fulfill. You know what I'm talking about: that sudden, melancholic desire that sloshes over you at the sight of another anaemic German couple beside you, bickering over their plate of scorched kebabs. Such moments fill you with self-hatred and a longing to escape, ditch the guidebook, find something no one else named Dieter or Gudrun would ever think to see or eat, to do something impossibly, unremittingly culturally authentic for once. 

But this, let's just admit it, is impossible. It's impossible for two reasons: 1) You are an incredibly lazy fuck and 2) You, in this very specific instance, are a woman. 

Which means that, as much as you'd like to escape the crowds, take the unknown tram, plunge into the unmarked neighborhoods barely mentioned in your guidebook--places practically labeled "Here be dragons" in the Lonely Planet index--chat up the stranger, sit at the dingy little side street bar you've stumbled across, hang out for hours in the market stalls drinking tea, you can't. As a woman, this kind of whim can turn dangerous in a heartbeat. And while Istanbul seems to be a very safe city--safe, that is, if like me you've stuck to the largely touristed grid--there are still hazards. For a woman, there are always hazards. The one big difference between being a woman alone in Paris and a woman alone in Istanbul is how I have to remember--constantly--to keep my face impassive. In Istanbul, I always have to wear the same blank expression, my eyes focused straight ahead or slightly down, my mouth never turned up at the corners.

Most men reading this post won't understand why, but I bet most women will. When you, as a woman, feel comfortable in a place, when you feel free, there's an expression that you allow to come over your face. You let yourself show if you're surprised, when you've just seen something that's interested or delighted you. Sometimes you'll nod or half-smile at strangers, sometimes you'll spend a fraction of an instant too long glancing at someone on the street. These expressions can be problematic, because in some countries, if the person happening to catch these looks is male, there's about an 80-90% chance that this stranger will suddenly be sitting beside you, trying to hold your hand.

This week, I've forgotten to "blank" my face two very notable times, with the result that I've had to pay for a museum I didn't want to visit in order to ditch the man that started following me, and I had to change my bus seats in a nearly empty tram not just once but TWICE to avoid the same man who kept trying to sit veryveryveryclose to me. 

This is nothing. I've traveled a lot and there have been far scarier events I've weathered, including getting attacked in Scotland: Istanbul still ranks pretty high on my "Safe for Single Women" traveler's scale. But that safety rank admittedly comes with a self-inflicted cost, which is that in order to stay safe, I've played it far more conservatively than perhaps I'd like. But as my Turkish is nonexistent and my international health insurance coverage minimal, best not to push my luck.

And there are some joys in just giving up and doing the touristy thing.

For instance, this week, I went to a hammam. And not just any old hammam, but The Guardian's  "One of 1000 things you must do before you die" hammam; the Kate-Moss-Sat-Spread-Eagled-Here-For-W-Magazine! hammam, the  "'Oh-madam-but-this-is-a-tourist-rip-off,' says-the-hotel-manager" hammam. That's right: I went to Cagaloglu Hammam. For obvious reasons, I don't have pictures of the interior (though you could just Google "Kate Moss W Magazine Hammam" and see not only the interior of Cagaloglu but very nearly the interior of Kate Moss), though I do have some quick snaps of the entrance to the hammam. It looks like this:

What's just past that is a cavernous hall of pale marble, little brass spigots and buckets lined around the walls at thigh-height, in the center an enormous octagonal slab of marble on which the various (all female, obviously) customers flop and drip like so many recent caught herrings. Not wanting to be the evening's Uptight Yanky, I went in buck naked. This--as it turns out--seems to be the wrong thing to do, as everyone else INCLUDING the German tourists (which is incredible: in my experience, Germans love being naked. They THRIVE on nudity. Their whole vacation seems to revolve around how soon they can strip out of their leiderhosen) went in still wearing their panties. Actually, they were all wearing thongs. (Side note:  When Europeans enter a public bathhouse in their late fifties, it should be part of the Geneva Convention's rules for them not to also be wearing a thong. Being naked in a thong is a horrible, horrible thing for other people to have to witness, as it not only makes people uncomfortably aware of the "thongitude" of your appearance, it also makes them more acutely aware that you are, in fact, naked except for a tiny piece of string. Indeed, seeing said sad, shriveled string hanging between two slackening butt cheeks will not just make people embarrassed and uncomfortable, it will rob them of their future appetite for holiday meats, as your pink ass will now remind them--perpetually--of a Christmas ham with its string truss loosening. But I digress.)

There's a huge steam room off to one side, also made of marble. The whole place is worked by a bunch of older Turkish women, each clad in a black bathing suit that looks like a weight lifter's kit from 1920s. These women are shriveled like raisins from spending their entire day in steam, their hands stuffed into loofah mitts, ready and eager to scrape away the top two layers of your skin.  Which is what happened to me. The Turkish attendant who got me kept pointing out how much she managed to scrape off, bending my knee or arm close to my face for inspection. "DIRTY DIRTY YOU!" she kept crowing, something that probably would be more charming were I also not the only one in the room naked as a rhesus monkey.

This woman also took it upon herself to shampoo my entire head and face, splashing water all over me, exactly as if I were a baby. Actually, all of us began to look vaguely infantile as the hour went on, as each of became pinker and more slack by the minute, until we began to resemble those strangely boneless women in an Ingres painting. One of the attendants, as if thinking this herself, actually blew raspberries on her customer's stomach for a joke as she scrubbed her. (This did not, THANK GOD, happen to me.) Overall, the heat made us too droopy to do more than slump, blinking as we were pummeled and rubbed and dashed with water, which overall felt pleasant but looked--from afar--like we were patients in an upscale insane asylum being hosed down after our lobotomies.

So, you know, that was fun.

Afterwards, I decided that if I were willing to be this much of a tourist suck, I should go the distance. "Let's Turk this shit up!" is in fact what I said to myself after exiting the hammam, and so I went to Tophane, near Istanbul Modern, to the huka district (the pipes, not the women, you spell check freaks) to sit, eat a chicken kebab and a plate of fresh fruit, drink some apple tea, and smoke a caramel-flavored bowl with the boys on the docks.

Here's me doing just that. Actually, here's my pipe, the fruit and (I cropped it) part of my knees. One other difficulty of traveling alone--female or not--is having no one readily on hand to take your picture doing stupid things.

And how was it? The attendant told me to keep the smoke in my cheeks, not my chest, so--like Bill Clinton--I smoked but never inhaled. (This, by the way, is not the real way to do it. You inhale.) Still, I got a little woozy, and slightly nauseous from the caramel flavoring, but it was fun, and evidently I can still be considered electable as president. One thing that's great about the huka cafe is that it seems to attract a range of ages and personality types, so that the same cafe that serves a bunch of 20-something year-old co-eds also attracts middle-aged backgammon freaks (every table came with a board), old men and their wives, and shockingly pink-faced American tourists fresh from the hammam.

Still, having confessed to being Ms. Touristy Tourist, I also feel like I need to say that I did stumble on some things that were slightly off the beaten track. In the upper reaches of Tophane after doing a tour of art galleries, I ran into the swankiest little wine bar which serves all Turkey-local wines and is precisely the size of a meat locker. The place is called Sonia, I think (can't totally recall) and is next to a bunch of hip clothing stores and is serviced by a 90-pound waitress who seems to lack the upper arm strength to hold a bottle upright, as she's got the heaviest pour I've ever seen: in the goldfish bowl they gave me for a wine glass, I think she poured me about 1/3 the bottle. Which is why I can no longer recall the name of the bar. 

Also a good deal is a tiny little mezze restaurant on a side street just off Asmalimescit which has no name (I'm not kidding) and has the best kofte (meatballs) I've ever had in my life. Here's a picture of the place.

That's a picture of the plate of food they gave me. The whole thing cost 8 dollars. 

And if you're interested, right across the street from it is another restaurant called Sofia 9 which is also fantastic (get the lamb pot) but about 4 times more expensive. This is my favorite picture of the week, however, as you are looking at the hands of a very nice waiter who is holding out an entire tray of different mezze dishes and asking what I might like to eat. This is pretty much my definition of heaven, only it would soon be followed by several other trays, one of which will hold nothing but bottles of scotch.

So. Now that I've earned my non-tourist badge of honor for the week with these last two offerings, let me say good night and good luck to you all out there and add as well, for those of you traveling who are--like me--too practical or lazy or tired or nervous or female or all of the above to do much more than the obvious, the well trod, the Totally German, have hope. There's still pleasure to be had. Even if a man named Deiter shows up in a thong to join you in it.

Onwards and upwards and off to Vietnam,