Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Ballad of Thistle and Meatball

"Something's wrong with Thistle and Meatball,**" my father says on the phone during our weekly Skype chat. I am calling not just to talk to my parents, but to find out how my dogs are doing. Frankly, that's the main reason I ever call. That, and to comment on the newest photos my mom has sent me of the dogs in my absence. "Aren't they cute?" my mom will ask, and we'll spend an hour on the computer, talking about dogs.

"Thistle has lost two pounds and Meatball is now two pounds heavier!" my father presses.

(**All dogs' names have been changed to protect their privacy. These pseudonyms, however, may more accurately reflect their personalities than actual names.)

"What are you feeding them?" I ask, rubbing my forehead. It's like this every time we talk: the dogs are on the verge of death, my dad is on the verge of despair.

"Everything! Everything!" my father shouts at his computer.

"No, not everything," my mother says, interrupting on her own computer. "Your dad is such an exaggerator. We feed them the dog food you gave us, plus some treats. It's just that Thistle has stopped eating and Meatball just devours everything as soon as you put it down. He just shoves poor Thistle to the side!"

"Meatball is a terrorist!" my dad shouts. "A FOOD TERRORIST!"

"Thistle usually eats at night when everyone's asleep anyway," I say. "Maybe you should just leave food out for her?"

"It doesn't matter," my dad snorts. "That Meatball gets everything. When we hand out the bacon strips to Thistle, you know, to try to get some food into her, he comes over and starts drooling. So we have to give him something, too."

"Bacon strips?" I ask.

"Well, she got sick of the roast chicken we were giving her," mom says. "Though she still likes the Keebler crackers, and the peanut butter--the crunchy kind, not the smooth--and those big bones we get basted in BBQ sauce..."

"Roast chicken?"I ask.

"Yes, well, she tired of that after the fancy canned dog food we switched to, after she stopped eating the dry dog food you got her. She's such a picky eater!"

"Bones in BBQ sauce?" I ask.

"Well, yes. She stopped liking the pigs' ears after three days, and then the dried chicken strips, so we moved on to the bones in BBQ sauce, along with the Milkbones. She still likes those."

"These are more treats than she's ever gotten in her life," I say, feeling alternately impressed and chagrined by my mother's mealtime coddling, realizing as I do now that I'll come home to a dog who expects me not only to change out all her treats and food, but to do so on a revolving three-day basis. It's not that I'm ungrateful: I'm tremendously grateful. It's been difficult for them to take care of my dogs and to make decisions for me in my absence about their care. For my part, I've been consciously trying not to think about my dogs because I start crying immediately. I've learned to seal off this part of my life at home, like an iron door shutting on a vault. I'm turning into Scarlet O'Hara: whenever memories of my dogs threaten to overwhelm me, I just tell myself I'll think about it tomorrow.

But tomorrow is of course contingent on my dogs' health. If anything goes wrong, I'm buying a plane ticket home immediately. This, however, doesn't constitute immediately. What it constitutes is an epic food binge.

"You do realize," I say, sighing, "that she's smart enough that she may be training you, right?"

"Well, I thought of that," my mother says. "But then she just looks so interested in what I'm cooking. It's so hard to say 'no' to my granddogs."

"And meanwhile Meatball, that big walking ham of yours, just sits there and eats her food, then gets all those treats too," my father adds.

"So don't give them to him!"

"I can't! He looks so sad. It's clear he thinks I've betrayed him. And after I fell down on the ice while walking them and he sat with me all that time, drooling on my head... And then I stepped on him the other day, by accident," my father says, "and he just gave me this look, this look, like I'd done it deliberately. I felt so bad, I gave him half my sandwich."


"Well, it is true that Meatball sat with your father out on the ice while he was writhing and slipping around out there," my mother says. "I just thought it was so funny watching him trying to get out of that snowbank! And Thistle of course ran away. She's a very smart dog. That's what we told the vet when we went to run all those tests to find out why she wasn't eating. The blood work came out fine, her teeth are good, the x-rays showed she has a bit of arthritis in her neck, but the vet thinks maybe we should get an MRI or a dog psychologist."

"Thistle isn't smart enough for a psychologist," dad snapped, still miffed at being abandoned in his 10 minutes of need.

"She IS that smart! Oh, look, what's she doing now by the computer?"

"Downloading pornography," I mutter. "Let's go back to that MRI for a minute. Not to panic, but you do realize that's going to be about a thousand dollars?"

"We're just putting everything on your tab!" mom says cheerfully. "Along with the 48 cans of dog food and those sacks of BBQ bones she won't eat. I hope she regains interest in them soon. But don't worry. We aren't doing the MRI."

"Even though she's starving to death," dad says.

"She is not starving to death, Tom!"

It's one of those platitudes that people don't realize how much they are like their parents until they have kids. In my case, I didn't realize how much I was like my parents until I had dogs and then had to have my parents take care of them for a year. Here I can see clearly the two traits I have inherited from them: my father's relentless, near-hysterical pessimism, and my mother's cheerful tendency both to over-indulge herself and the ones she loves. The people she loves comprise a fairly tight-knit circle: my mother is extremely protective of her family, the definition of which--for her--is also fairly conservative. I lived with a man for seven years and had to argue with my mother each and every Christmas to let him stay in our house when we came home to visit, as my mother believed only married people should stay in the same house, evidently. "I don't want to let anyone think we condone your behavior," she said, about our non-married cohabitation. And with Sean it was similar: though we'd lived together for five years, my mother only actually began asking about him once I told her we were married. After that, she regularly sent us boxes of food and gifts, many of their items now dedicated solely to Sean.

But the real test of family is getting your photo taken at Yuen Lui studios. When my mother has decided that someone is undeniably a part of our inner circle, she sets up a studio session and has his portrait taken with us. This has happened, obviously, only twice: with my first husband, and now with Sean.

It took these two men a combined total of 12 years for this event to happen. With my dogs, it took two months.

"Well, your dogs are a lot more adorable than some of the men you've brought home," my mother says, when I bring this up.

"I just worry that they're starting to get a little spoiled," I say. "And, you know, likely to develop type II diabetes."

"Should we stop giving them the ice cream?"

"Mom!" I cry.

"Oh, we're going to miss those dogs when they go," mom says. "It'll be worse than when you went to college!"

"Come and get them now," my father growls. "Do you know how much rain we've been getting this winter? And that those fleabags need to be walked every day!"

"Only Thistle won't go out when it rains," mom adds. "Though she does like to be rubbed down with a towel. I like to give the dogs a little massage after their walk."



"Oh my God," I say, the realization of what I've done sinking into me at last. "I don't know how I'm going to get them out of your home when I return. They'll never want to come home with me after living with you."

"Don't worry: I'm sure they'll remember you again. Meatball still talks about you all the time," mom says, giggling.

"That dog farts your name in his sleep," dad adds.

My parents begin to cackle. I suddenly remember an old Disney movie I saw as a child where two girls--one rich and one poor--are vying for the same pony. They decide to let the pony choose who to live with and stand on opposite ends of the ring calling the pony's name until the pony, hamstrung and hungry for a carrot, eventually waddles off in the direction of the little rich girl, the one whose pockets her grandmother had carefully lined with sugar. At least, that's the way I'm imagining it now, realizing that in order to get my dogs back in a few months I'll have to show up on the doorstep with a pint of Haagen Daazs and a bouquet of dried bull pizzles.

"Is it possible," I say, trying not to sound too wheedling as I form the question, "that Thistle isn't eating because I'm not there?"

My parents pause for a moment. "Oh, no," they both agree, firmly. "It's definitely not that. Because boy did she show interest in that can of Pringles your father opened the other day."

I'm suddenly remembering something my vet said when I asked her, tearfully, if my dogs' health might go downhill if I left them for so long. "Will they be depressed?" I asked, daubing my eyes.

"Weeeeell," my vet had said, tactfully, "dogs are not quite so emotional when it comes to things like home attachments."

And she was right. In the meantime, my dogs have not only become my parents' grandchildren, but probably the most treasured members of our family's inner circle.

"Maybe," I say, "instead of feeding her all this extra stuff, you could just separate their food bowls so that Meatball doesn't eat everything?"

My parents pause. "We could try that," my mother says.

"And maybe fewer treats?"

"We could try that, too."

"And maybe, I don't know, talk about me a lot in front of them?" I ask again. "Maybe show them my picture?"

My parents pause again. "Now that," my mother says finally, before hanging up on her computer, "is just indulging yourself, my dear."










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."




Monday, February 13, 2012

Some Thoughts on Filters

Some of you have written to tell me that my blog is all fucked up. That would be the design and layout of the blog, not the writing of the blog itself, I hope. If so, I am already aware of this problem. And the reason for it has to do with being in Vietnam.


Actually, it has to do with being at the perfect intersection between Idiotic Capitalism and Fuck-It Communism. Having succumbed to a wave of Narcissistic Consumerism last spring, what many of you out there know as that lowest run on the long long ladder that comprises Idiotic Capitalism, I bought an I-Pad. Then I moved up a rung and began to purchase and download all the many applications that would make said I-Pad a useful and functioning computing device, something, er, equivalent to a cheap-ass laptop. One of these applications was Blogsy, an application that appears to be run by a very conscientious, very cheerful, and yet somewhat shortsighted team of people, as each update to the application brings with it more, not fewer, bugs. One of these bugs is incredibly complicated to explain, but it is basically why my whole blog design got screwed up, and can now only be fixed by abandoning the I-Pad, finding an actual computer on which anything besides Safari has been installed, going onto Blogger and tinkering with the design setup.



Enter Fuck-It Communism.

Let me start by saying that it's easy to forget you are in a Communist country when living in Vietnam. First of all, the whole country seems to be obsessed with making money, as much of it and as fast as possible, and there seem to be few restrictions or scruples as to how this might happen, as not only is every square inch of Hanoi covered with something to buy, sell, eat, rent or fix, but there are also the same kinds of massive Walmart-style stores as in America dotting the outskirts of the city, in which you can buy everything from stereo equipment to a baby crib to a live lobster.

There are few police wandering the streets, you can pretty much drive in any direction, on any surface, through any kind of street light that you want, and it's easy to find CNN, HBO, StarWorld, the BBC, and many French, German and Australian news channels on a lot of t.v.s. There are, yes, those cheerful, pink propaganda posters slapped up all over town and of course the daily Cocktail Hour of Social Hectoring each afternoon, but a lot of the (theoretic or too literal) ways I would have imagined Communism to work seem to be absent. Health care is paid for but only up to a point, as is education, so Vietnam really seems to be, on the surface, kind of the worst of both worlds: the rapaciousness of first-world capitalism mixed in with the occasional dictatorial streak of Communism, with far fewer of the first-world social amenities that normally accompany other progressive capitalist nations and less useful socialist public health programs and policies supposedly attached to communism.



But what does this have to do with the damn blog? Well, where Vietnam's Communism really kicks in is in the monitoring of certain types of social media and publishing. For instance, there aren't a lot of journals to be found here. There's the Vietnamese Cosmo, and several other types of fashion rags, some travel journals in English and a few teenie bopper type magazines but there are no political journals that I've found, and a dearth of printed material in general, though there are tons of bookstores around the city. The writing community--from what little I've learned about it--seems to be attached to a kind of Writers Union you have to join to get certain benefits, including--it seems--being published in certain magazines or with certain presses. But things like Facebook and Blogger are the truly forbidden outlets, "verboten" in the sense that their servers are blocked by the government so that these sites can't be accessed on the internet. Also, very occasionally, sometimes when you are watching the t.v. the channel you are watching goes to the "Emergency Broadcasting" bandwidth as if the station itself had shut off, then kicks on again in a couple of hours, presumably when the program that the government official didn't want you to watch has ended.

(Aside: What's really sad is that it seems every Nicholas Cage movie shot in the past five years is perpetually available on t.v., which makes you wonder--if the censors don't want to save us all from the true cultural evils of "Season of the Witch," what the hell ARE they protecting us from?)


Overall, the ban on the servers for FB and Blogger are hardly strict. Tons of young people (and this is a SUPER young country: did I mention how many people under thirty seem to live here? How many women seem to be pregnant? How many babies you can see propped between their parents on the motorbikes scooting around the city?) have FB accounts on their I-phones, almost every ex-pat I meet here has a blogger account, and the only thing stopping anyone from attaining the life of relentless self-publicity that characterizes that of most Americans is a decent, easily downloadable VPN program.

Which I now need to find again for my other computer.

This is why I call it "Fuck-It" Communism. There seems to be little consistency as to why certain things are filtered here, and the ability to get around the filters is laughably easy, if time-consuming. It's an irritant; less a social control than the attempt to keep up political appearances. I like to think of it as a weak social "herder", like a half-blind, thirteen year-old border collie trying to keep the sheep in line while at the same time not getting trampled.



Interestingly, I've been thinking about filters a lot these days. I'm back taking French classes here in Hanoi which, I know, sounds insane but there is some method to this madness.

I want to keep practicing the language, and

It's a good way to meet Vietnamese students.

I mean, think about it: if I take Vietnamese, all I meet are other foreigners. If I take French, I meet Vietnamese people. With the added bonus that we now have a language in common to speak in.

I am, of course, taking Vietnamese as well: there are some free group discussion nights/language lessons at a café near my place, so I go to those Wednesday nights after my French class, drink some fresh watermelon juice, and hang out with a bunch of friendly folks from around the world, learning how to butcher another whole new series of verbs.



What's funny about all this is how often the language classes themselves become filters. In class, we're always being asked to discuss topics pre-arranged by our class workbooks in order to build up specific vocabulary sets, which means we end up talking about things not a single one of us wants to discuss, such as whether it would be cool if Thuy suddenly got pink hair, or whether Hanh thinks having a butterfly tattoo is stupid or not, and what do we think of this HSBC ad, and what does each of us want to do for Saint Valentine's Day. And of course, each of us responds in the highly filtered ways that our limited grammar and vocabulary gives us, which of course makes us sound even more like the ham-strung, moronic stereotypes of our national selves. So it's no surprise that Thuy looks like she'd rather get shot in the face than get pink hair, and Hanh says the butterfly is only a good idea if it's hidden way down under your clothes and no one is surprised when the big dumb blinking American (yes, that would be me) admits she has several tattoos and no aversion to pink hair but couldn't care less about the HSBC ad. And it gets even funnier and sadder when we have to listen to the class CD to determine whether the person speaking is being ironic or not, and because the person speaking is French, and because Vietnamese is the most extraordinarily complex tonal language I've ever come across (there are, like, nearly a dozen different ways to make an "a" sound here, depending on the accent markings and which other syllables accompany it. A DOZEN DIFFERENT WAYS, PEOPLE) of course they are both good and terrible at detecting irony, being immediately able to detect that something has changed but not being able to say whether that that change is in itself irony or, as it would be in Vietnamese, A TOTALLY DIFFERENT FREAKING WORD.

As for me, the American, perhaps it is the stereotypical defect of my national character which determines that I can't detect irony, as to me the French speaker on the language lesson CD seemed able only to express herself in the sweet spot between sincerity and sneering, thus even when the teacher played us all the CD not once but THREE TIMES, I still couldn't determine which one of the "Oh, but my dear that sweater suits you so well!" was the snarky version.

Overall, as this year limps on, it strikes me that filtering is a pretty apt metaphor for travel. Your language is filtered, your clothes aren't the ones you'd normally wear (or are, in my case, becoming so worn through with overuse they are literally unraveling in places off my body), your apartments aren't the kinds of places you'd normally choose, your ability to judge the mental faculties of others around you becomes a touch distorted, you begin eating animal products you'd otherwise avoid, you have people stick long things in your ears, you can't call your family at the times you most want to, your internet connections are too slow, the streets are too crowded, your t.v. shuts off the news channel so you have little to watch but endless reruns of "How I Met Your Mother." It's like your life at home, but with some sort of consistent, low-level distraction distorting it. You're almost yourself, and almost someone else entirely. You're always, just almost, coming through.

So. Here is my blog entry for the week: hopefully corrected, hopefully readable. Stuck somewhere between Fuck It and Radical. Which is, overall, a pretty interesting place to be.








Thursday, February 9, 2012

An Update

Friends, it is time we spoke about sandwiches. 

This little stand, in Hoi An, happens to have some pretty amazing ones: lightly toasted rolls into which all kinds of yummy sliced pork, cucumber, fresh onions and chilis, påté, some sort of mayonaise, and various and sundry spiced condiments are layered. Small enough to fit in your fist, spicy enough to cause watering of the eyes, and delicious enough that one won't last more than 5 minutes in your company.

In short, fantastic. 

But first, as usual, time for a confession.

In the past six months, I have cooked at home less than 10 times. That's right: since I began traveling the world, I pretty much gave up cooking.

There's a good reason for this. In Paris, my apartment didn't have counter space, anything larger than a rusted-out hotpot to cook on, and no ventilation, so the idea of cooking anything that involved ingredients more complicated or fragrant than lettuce didn't appeal.

Plus, pre-cooked meals from the grocery stores were cheap, fairly tasty and, most importantly, were sized perfectly for one person to eat. And sometimes, the drinks even came wearing tiny knitted caps.

And of course, the cafés were always nice to visit.

(This is my favorite café ever: the little place attached to Merci. Yes, those are used books for sale on the walls.)

But mostly I lived on sandwiches. Which was easy, as the boulangerie right next to my apartment served some of the best arm-length baguettes in town. For basically eight dollars you could get a fresh-baked baguette filled with strips of real roasted chicken, fresh tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, fresh sliced vegetables, along with a drink and a slice of homemade chocolate cake. Which was what I ate almost every day.

And now I'm in Vietnam, where eating out at a fancy restaurant--like Morning Glory, the kind of place where Gordon Ramsay and other celebrity chefs come to learn how to cook Vietnamese food--costs you 20$ for a five course meal with drinks. That's a big night out. The average meal on the street costs $1.50 or less. So you'd have to be a bit of an idiot to spend a lot of time cooking.

And though I may be a masochist, I pride myself on NOT being an idiot.

Here are some do-it-yourself gia cuon I got in Phu Quoc. I sense a theme party upon my return home. Friends: get your rice wraps ready.

Sorry. Gratuitous whole fish food photo.

Anyway, I've been living on various forms of sandwiches (among other things, obviously) this past year, and now that I've taken up semi-permanent residence in Hanoi, I've also been searching for the best banh my stand near my neighborhood. So far, the one I like most is in Hai Ba Trung on Trieu Viet Vuong next to a bubble tea stand. There are two women working frantically there from about 11 to probably just after one (as I discovered when I went there the other day just before 2 to discover NO SANDWICHES WERE TO BE HAD), toasting bread in their portable oven, cooking up what look like vomitous masses of egg and ground pork in an omelette pan which--though hideous to behold--are amazing as an addition to their perfectly toasted baguettes, each omelette piled atop mounds of sliced pork, fresh chilis, peppers, sliced cucumbers, onions and mayonnaise, all of it topped off with a fairy dusting of MSG that will make you feel tingly-spined and vaguely stoned for the rest of the day.  

It is the Sandwich of the Century, my friends. 

Sometimes--like every alternate Sunday--I feel a twinge of guilt for how much time and money I might be wasting, wandering around various cities of the world trying to find the next great, cheap thing to eat. People's blogs are a fantastic resource for this, naturally, as eating cheap seems to be the number one hobby sport of English-speakers abroad so, along with wasting time wandering around the back alleys of Istanbul or Rome or Paris, I've also been frittering my time away surfing blogs.

But it is from such blogs that, in Rome, I discovered the world's best pizzeria near the Coliseum (seriously not kidding about this), plus a bookstore that serves shots of alcohol in cups made ENTIRELY out of chocolate.
It is how I discovered the head-sized schnitzel to be found at a particular Gasthaus near the Freud museum (let's not even begin to parse the psychological implications of that image), and it is how, when I plan my upcoming trips to Cambodia and Singapore, I will know exactly where to eat.

But in the meantime, I'm taking a break from travel, and from reading travel blogs. Also, no offense my wonderful friends who've come to see me, from visitors. While I was in Paris, I had visitors every two weeks; my entire December was in fact taken up with one friend after another coming to visit, which was totally delightful, but a LOT of leg work. This, along with my week in Istanbul and my three weeks traveling around Vietnam with Sean, means that I have essentially been walking, sightseeing, and tour guiding for two months straight.
I. Am. Exhausted.

Which gets me to the last part of this rambling post. If anyone out there thinks they'd like to do what I'm doing--travel around the world for a year--or if anyone has just won the Amy Lowell and is trying to figure out what next year's game plan might be, know this: you either travel, or you write. It's nearly impossible to do both. I'm always torn between wanting to ramble outside in the streets all day and wanting to hole up at home, phone switched off, reading and writing and being really really dull by myself. It's hard to do both; the writing depends--for me at least--on boredom and regularity to get done, but travel means constant planning, constant change, constant excitement and challenge and rental leases and new language classes and discomfort. Travel is supposed to fuel one's writing, but it also makes the writing itself, day to day, a distant dream.

Writing while traveling is kind of like cooking at home when you live in Vietnam. I mean, you COULD do it, but why would you want to?

Anyway, that's what I've been doing this past week: forcing myself to stay inside, writing at home. But there are still some things I've seen, in Hanoi and around Vietnam, that I'd just like to mention here that have struck me in one way or another. Here they are, dear reader, in no particular order.

1. A room full of middle-aged Vietnamese women in bikinis, grinding numbly to house music in front of a bank of mirrors. They call this an aerobics class in Vietnam.

2. Traffic post-Tet. It's like 2/3 of the city magically evaporates overnight.

3. Bun cha. 

4. Hoi An.

5. Vietnamese iced coffee.  Before I came to Hanoi, I'd never drunk a cup of coffee in my life. Now I'll never be able to stop.

6. Walking in the Botanical Garden and around the Ho Chi Minh memorial site on Sundays, watching the badminton players, the few runners, and the one woman with the red fan do her fan dance exercises late in the afternoon.

7. Sponge cake in the bakeries. Noodles drying on a rack in the street.

8. The crazy man who walks past my apartment building certain afternoons. If I'm out, he'll grab my arm, stare wildly into my face and make a bowing motion. He looks, disorientingly, just like a poet I used to work with at the university.

9. Yes, Hung Phat tea. And yes, there is also a place called Hung Long near my place. The store--wait for it--is a men's tailoring shop.

10. The graphics of Communist party propaganda. I don't know who the artists are they hire for these billboards, but by God some of these artworks are amazing to look at in their sheer kitschitude. 

11. Suspension bridges.

12. Bicycling the backroads while slightly drunk.

13. White egrets in rice paddies. Trust me, they were there. But by the time I stumbled off my bike, drunk, to take their photo, they were gone.

14. Hai Ba Trung.

15. Fresh watermelon juice.

16. Fresh mango juice.

17.  The view outside our hotel in Cat Cat.

18. How kind and cool the ex-pat and ex-pat friendly community is in Hanoi. Within less than 24 hours in the city, I had messages from five different people offering to help me settle in, give me information, have me join their writing groups. Hanoi's traffic may be the deadliest in the world, but the community in general here is probably the nicest.

20. How cheap medical care is in Vietnam. Trust me, by now I know.

21.  This fish dish I had in Phu Quoc. I have no idea what it was. It was the most delicious thing I've ever eaten in my life. When I am on my deathbed and someone asks my what my biggest regret in life was, I'll tell them it was not forcing someone to teach me how to cook this dish.

22. At the local temples: offerings of food for New Years. On the one side of the altar, a stack of Heineken, on the other a stack of Cokes. In the middle, boxes upon boxes of ChocoPies.

23. My apartment in Ba Dinh. After Paris, this place is utter paradise.

24. The road-wise chickens outside my apartment. Why did the chickens in Vietnam cross the road? They didn't, stupid. That's why they're fucking alive.

25. Cheap language lessons.

26. Seriously, Vietnamese iced coffee.

27. The eight year-old street kid selling breath mints after 10 p.m. I love watching him try to sabotage the 25 year-old karaoke singer (who also seems to be selling breath mints) by trying to yank out the volume cords of the singer's rolling karaoke machine mid-song.

28. The numb look everyone in traffic seems to get.

29. The fact the buses never come to a complete stop. To take a bus in Hanoi, you have to both jump on and off a constantly moving vehicle.

30. How no one even bats an eye here whenever I start to freak out. 

31. Nem ga. 

32. All the sandwiches.