Sunday, February 26, 2012

Seven Month Bitch

Around the time I found myself on my knees before the freezer at Western Canned Goods, tearfully rummaging through its half-denuded shelves of fancy mozzarella and foie gras, of freeze dried plums and sacks of Asian-produced Bega Cheese labeled "Tasty," "Extra Tasty" or (my favorite) "Sharp and Bitey," snapping at the Vietnamese grocer who was laughing, nervously, at my desperate attempts to unearth the last possibly well-hidden, errant plastic pack of tortillas I was so fortunate to find in bulk in this very spot just one short week ago, it struck me:

It's nearing seven months.

The seventh-month mark for me is my Month of Crazy. Having lived abroad in three different countries over the course of my life, I have discovered that I can withstand just about any kind of radical dietary, social, linguistic or commuting changes with near to complete equanimity for six months, but once seven months hits, I snap.

I become something like what you see here: a tearful woman on her knees in an overpriced dry good store, flinging prunes and cursing volubly at an expired packet of Velveeta.

I had thought that I would avoid this particular problem by changing countries too often to let rage settle in: four month in France, four months in Vietnam, padded by months or weeks in other climes of interest. But it turns out, my rage is smarter than that. My rage is the Bluetick coonhound of anger: it can track me anywhere, surfacing out of the deep thicket of my subconscious, wild-eyed and froth-mouthed, half a rabbit hanging from its slavering jaws. This is an interesting fact, because it means that what I had previously believed was rage fueled by the difficulties of living in a particular country is really, in fact, the rage of traveling in general. It is not the culture shock of living in South Korea or China or France, say, it is the culture shock of being, simply, not at home. And so while it certainly doesn't help that when I get up and dress it feels as if I'm putting on clothes sewn out a whole roll of moist towelettes, and when I step outside my front door I am immediately treated to the stench of a thousand passing motorbikes occasionally laced with raw sewage (I think a pipe burst somewhere recently, or there was a drain issue: not sure); and that every time I walk down the sidewalk someone nearly runs me over on his scooter; or that the adorable woman who overcharges me on her mangoes likes to grab my midsection, shake it like a maraca and start laughing about how fat I am; and that when I run in the Lenin park by my house guys come up and make kissing noises at me; or that when I come home late in the afternoon, laden with groceries or other packages there always seems to be a chicken waiting to scurry right in front of my legs to trip me; or that a fair number of taxi drivers have tried to cheat me; or even that I am so desperate for a home-made burrito that I have spent the entire day trekking to the Metro in order to buy the requisite vegetables, bean-substitutes, meats and spices only to find that there are no tortillas but hey, that's ok--the store by my house sells tortillas, I've seen them, only now they don't, and the manager assures me that they never sold them, no matter what I once saw or even once purchased myself FROM THIS VERY freezer, they have never and certainly never will sell them, so now I have everything to make burritos except the damn thing that holds all this exhaustively procured burrito-ness together, it's all not really about that. Because those things, weirdly, were what were also making living here kind of interesting to me roughly five seconds before I lost it. My losing it came so suddenly (one minute I'm holding a jar of hot sauce, the next I'm crying into a sack of dried prunes) and so out of nowhere that it surprised even me. What I'm mad about isn't Vietnam, I realized, tossing another "Sharp and Bitey" cheese packet into my basket, nor is it about not being able to make a burrito for myself in Vietnam. It's just (gulp) Being Not At Home For So Long.

That, oddly, is a comforting thing.

It also explained my sudden, desperate craving for burritos to begin with. I like Mexican food, but a burrito--especially the kind of burritos I've eaten and have been dreaming of--is hardly my go-to cuisine in Utah. I've always associated this sort of burrito (the kind you find in TGIFS or the Rio Grande Restaurant perhaps, smothered in cheese and sour cream) with the terrible "kind of" Chinese restaurant foods popular across the state, a sort of Latin version of chop suey. After seven months outside the US, however, this kind of burrito has evidently become the apex of American Western cuisine: the food of foods, the delicacy of processed delights, the veritable meaning of home to someone who--for the last eight years or more--has continually tried to resist calling any one place home to begin with. I mean, even though I've lived nearly a decade in Salt Lake, it's surprising to me how quickly I tell people I'm really from somewhere else (well, maybe not THAT surprising) and how often I fantasize about pulling up my non-roots and moving on, finding somewhere else, starting all over again.

But now I see that I want a home. I've been missing the consistency and community of a specific home. I want, I realize, the fucking burrito.

So. What to do. Improvise, I suppose. Make a home out of not a home.

The good news is that the seventh month's rage turns into the eighth month's acceptance, the Month of Dispelled Illusions if memory serves correctly, which means somewhere around the end of March I'm going to get the same nice, hazy glow of indifference that seems to bathe many of the Vietnamese drivers here. Like them, I'll have realized that the attempt to constantly keep up certain expectations and niceties is too much in a city as frenetic as Hanoi and I'll settle into a routine of coasting along, taking whatever space I can take, blithely ignoring all the discomfiting oddities that comprise travel around me.

I can't wait for the end of March.

In the meantime, however, there's this agonizing last part of February to get through. One thing that helps is planning some side trips--you know, to keep Crazy on her toes. Up next: a few days in Ho Chi Minh City, a few days in Angkor Wat, then back home. Another friend just wrote to say that he's coming into Hong Kong in April: Hong Kong happens to be one of my most favorite cities in the world, so I'll join him there then scoot on up to Shanghai. And then, finally, a few days in Tokyo to visit my mom, who got some sort of grant to go there for her work it seems. And then, who knows? Buenos Aires?

But as for my home-out-of-not-home problem, I think I've come up with an ingenious solution. I've managed to make what I call Amy Lowell Burritos: ground pork mixed in with onions, Japanese eggplant, garlic, peas (to substitute for beans) and Ortega Taco Seasoning (only three years out of date), a wilted head of romaine lettuce (thanks, Metro!), tomatoes, all wrapped up in the next best thing I could find in Hanoi to tortillas: chapattis.

You should try it. It comes with a dollop of creme fraiche and some manzanita olives. And--naturally--a generous helping of "Sharp and Bitey."





  1. I was just going to tell you, but gently, that making flour tortillas might actually not be that hard (I have done it, it's not that hard--) but your solution is better: find the local(-ish) flatbread. well-played. I think that seven months before full-meltdown is very impressive. I've been known to melt down within seven hours. You are a traveler-warrior. I salute you.

  2. I do my breakdown on the first day. Full bore. I cry all day, regret ever getting on the plane, start figuring out how long until I am done with whatever harebrained shit has displaced me in this manner, go running, sleep for an unnaturally long time, and then I'm ready to fight. I pity the poor unlucky who crosses paths with me on that first day.

    But even if I get over the crazy early, I never get over that burrito craving, not for as long as I'm unable to have the burrito.

  3. Should've asked me the other night. Tortillas can be found at L's place on Ly Thuong Kiet, just opposite the Hanoi Hilton Jail. Yes, the same one that interned Senator John McCain.

  4. Dammit! Well, will be getting my tortillas there from now on.