Archive for the ‘French Letters Visits America’ category

Transplant Shock

July 26, 2019

I’ve kind of been stunned into silence lately, getting ready to leave my cozy life in Walla Walla, moving back to my island home, and then trying to settle in. It’s taken me three entire weeks to relax enough to reflect.

I’ve been going in all directions, every which way. After four years away from my island life I’ve gotten a bit lost and even taken the wrong roads a couple of times, and had to re-invent every tiniest part of a daily routine. This house has stairs; my knee wishes it didn’t. It’s amazing how much energy it takes just figuring out when to go up, when to go down. It’s all been surprisingly exhausting, uprooting myself, making me feel that I must indeed be getting older.

I have been trying to work on one thing at a time, but keep getting distracted by the sheer number of things that need to be done. I’m going very easy on myself, not doing more than I want to in any given day, even though that prolongs the chaos.

The many hundreds of bumblebees in my garden are so focused and industrious that it makes me feel more productive just to watch them. I call it seeking inspiration, so as not to call it taking a break.

These blue and pink hydrangea blossoms are blooming on the same plant, defying what I think I know about soil chemistry. They remind me of myself, pining for my old home, kitties, and friends, but also slipping back into my old ways with surprising gusto, the two states existing simultaneously,

the old and the new colliding in the present. Who will emerge victorious? Because this is a contest, my happiness project. I’m giving myself a year to see whether I can find more happiness here than there, and it’s a pretty high bar.

I’ve left my old life behind, kind of. I’ve made sure that my home and cats and garden in Walla Walla will be perfectly preserved a year from now, should I choose to go back.

But like these blueberries that I planted before I left the island, the fruit of a possible new life is still a long way from being ripe.

The sun is shining now, but there was a long run of misty and coolish days, perfect for contemplation. Every night I have dinner right here, and ask myself what I really want. I’m giving myself a year to find out, engaged in a happiness project.

Because like it or not, I am inexorably aging, and while there’s no use wallowing or despairing, there’s no use denying it either. If I am lucky I now have the last quarter of my life left to live, and my goal is to make the absolute most of it. Where’s the best place to do that? I’m letting time tell me.

Forgotten Pleasures

March 13, 2019

It’s been so cold, so dark, for so long that I’d almost forgotten there was anything else. The kitties have been staying indoors, usually snuggled into my flannel sheets. I have resorted to putting on my warm and freshly-washed fuzzy clothes right in the laundry room, so as not to lose a bit of warmth.

Outside it looked like this. For about a solid month. I hung out in the kitchen, making big pots of pork chile verde, short ribs, and chili.

We had a miraculously sunny day, and I started dreaming of salad and looking at seed catalogs.

But then the snow got even deeper, and just stayed that way, interminably. My back yard was continuously buried in snow for at least two months. Until today.

Minou re-discovered the joy of sitting in the sun and watching the snow melt.

Toby scrambled up the delicate branches of the contorted filbert tree and onto the roof, checking for icicles and scouting out the best place for a sun bath.

Wearing flip-flops for the first time since I got back from Hawaii, I wandered around the snow-free edge of the garden and saw that the heliotrope, and various bulbs,

were struggling their way up through the frozen ground.

Amazingly, this sage, which was entirely covered with snow for two months, is still green. I have no idea how plants photosynthesize under snow.

The temperature this afternoon was 44°, but it felt like the tropics after weeks spent in the 20s. The kitties and I sat and basked in the sun, and I swear they looked as surprised and grateful as I felt. We had all forgotten the incomparable pleasure of resting in the sunshine after a long cold spell.

Soon the birds will be able to bathe again. The cats will shed their thick winter coats and will lounge on the warm patio, panting slightly. And I? I will be getting ready to move back to the island. Onward into spring and summer, and westward ho.

Be My (own) Valentine

February 14, 2019

If you, like me, are spending your Valentine’s Day alone, let’s talk about that. This is my fourth time around this particular holiday-sun since Shel died, and I’m trying to make the best of it. Because deep down I don’t think the day is a cliché, a reflection of crass commercialism, a day of platitudes and saccharine sentiment. I absolutely am for the idea of a day that celebrates love, in all its forms.

Last night I had a good cry, anticipating the annual sorrow of the day. But today I’m making a good effort to be my own Valentine. Because, if I’m honest, it’s been that way for a long time.

Shel, for all that he loved me madly and preferred rom-coms to all other films, was not great about Valentine’s Day. I’d remind him, and make some sort of minor fuss over it, and he’d play along, but his heart was never really in it.

He’d have chosen sheltering from the Mediterranean sun under a tea towel, while cleaning salad greens, over dining at the nearby Michelin 1-star any day, and that goes for a romantic dinner on Valentine’s Day as well. In fact, this picture was taken not long after V-Day, which is also celebrated to a moderate extent in France, way back in 2009.

So you’d think that by now I’d have a plan, a sure-fire approach to tackling the day on my own. Only kinda sorta, to tell the truth.

I thought about sending myself flowers, but then I thought better of it. I did do a lot of other comforting things for myself, some of which are undoubtedly peculiar.

First, I turned the heat up one degree. I always leave my daytime heat at 64° in winter, to the despair of my chillier friends. Normally I wear a lot of fleece and shawls in the house, and am sometimes a bit cold, sometimes not. But when people come over I turn up the heat a bit, a degree or three, to be kind to them. I decided to give myself an extra degree today, just for me alone, which turns out to be sort of like giving myself a continuous hug.

I also cooked myself a nice dinner and served it to myself with a pleasing and memory-laden bottle of wine I brought home with me, after a visit to a tiny winery in France, a couple of years ago. Because if I don’t drink it today, then when? And who is going to appreciate it more than I?

As a gift to myself I finished my taxes in just one afternoon, a personal best for me, both in earliness of date completed and shortness of time spent filling out forms.

I went into my icy and snowy back yard with my camera and crunched loudly through the snow, looking for beauty.

I made sure to feel happy, instead of jealous, for my friends who still have their loves beside them. I snuggled a lot with Minou and Toby, who are conveniently spending almost 24/7 in the house to keep their dainty paws off the tundra formerly known as home.

And I made sure to be glad to be alive. Because that’s not a given, not to be taken for granted for the space of one breath. Which is, after all, the space that makes all the difference. That one breath, whether you draw it alone or in the arms of your best beloved, is your real link to this earth, to this life. Valentine’s Day is just the celebration, that breath is what makes it all possible. Keep breathing, keep loving, that’s my plan, and I hope that it’s yours.

Super Special Singapore

November 19, 2018

There’s something about Singapore, and I can’t get it out of my mind. People laugh at the fact that it’s a crime to bring chewing gum into Singapore, and complain that it’s a nanny state, but I love it anyway, at least what I know about it.

For one thing, there’s a beautiful mix of cultures, and, at least according to what my guides there told me, they all get along. This wedding bed is a gorgeous example of Peranakan culture, often called nyonya, a local mix of Chinese and Malay, that specializes in joyous colors.

I kind of wanted to buy everything in this shop.

These houses are part of what was once the city’s red light district.

There’s Muslim culture, centered around the Arab Street neighborhood, although the people aren’t Arabs, just Muslims, usually of Indonesian or Malay origin.

There you can see everything from traditional dress, gorgeously tempting modern fashion, and school kids dressed for a festival.

There are Christians, who are already preparing for Christmas.

There’s Chinatown,

with a museum celebrating the samsui women, Chinese women credited with doing much of the construction work in Singapore in the early 20th century.

In this Chinese temple,

there are amazing decorative friezes made entirely of hand-stitched embroidery done in China, where a few artisans still master this craft.

There’s Little India, where the characteristic Indian love of glitter, color, and flowers is in evidence everywhere.

I stalked this lady down the street, to get a shot of how she twisted strings of jasmine in her hair. My guide Gee-Soo got some flower chains for me, and I hung them in my cabin, where they perfumed the air for two days.

I was curious about housing, about how all of the folks who aren’t represented in “Crazy Rich Asians” live. The answer is that over 80% of Singaporeans own and live in apartments in buildings known as public housing, which are built and subsidized by the government.

Gee-Soo took me high up in one public housing building, to have a look. The views were pretty spectacular, especially as an epic rainfall was brewing.

This is the nicely-customized front entrance of one apartment.

There’s lots of lovely modern architecture as well, although the knife-edged building on the left was considered to have bad feng shui, and so the building on the right was constructed to deflect any negative energy its neighbor might be emitting.

We walked out of the apartment building into a downpour the likes of which I’ve seldom seen,

and I realized why most sidewalks in Singapore are at least partly covered, as we all huddled together, trying to stay dry.

Water is a serious issue in Singapore, and Gee-Soo told me that two out of every three raindrops falling on the island is captured for purification and reuse. Even toilet water is cleaned until it’s completely pure and goes back into the system.

This is also the only place I’ve ever seen electric cars available on the street for rental, using a tap-and-go card payment system.

And pour finir en beauté, as the French say, saving the best for last,

there’s the stupendous National Orchid Garden, every inch of which is groomed to perfection, where I could have stayed for days, or even weeks.

So that was my little peek at Singapore, and I spent quite a bit of time fantasizing about how I could move there, or at least make an extended visit.

Except for the weather, a combination of heat and humidity that taught me a whole new understanding of the perspiration process, it’s my ideal environment in so many ways.  But for now, on to Indonesia.

The Rise Of Saigon

November 12, 2018

I was nervous about going to Saigon, and have been having a hard time getting myself to write about it. In fact, it took two shots of espresso to get my fingers moving to tell you about this day.

I grew up marching in the streets against the war in Vietnam. I remember the fall of Saigon, and couldn’t understand how an American could be welcome there today, even 50 years later. But I went, and I’m glad I did.

We started at the Rex Hotel, on whose rooftop garden were held the infamous daily press briefings during the war, known as the “five o’clock follies,” the content of which fell generally in the category of fake news, fed by the military to a cynical press corps.

Today the rooftop is a bar, where you can drink a delicious Vietnamese coffee and almost forget that there ever was a war.

Except, see that low building almost in the center, in the deep shade? That’s the former CIA headquarters, on whose rooftop the famous photo of people scrambling frantically up a ladder into the last helicopter out of Saigon was shot.

Even though today the hotel sports a glamorous lobby

housing a Cartier shop, everyone remembers that the place had another, darker life.

We visited a Buddhist temple nearby.

where we wrote our names on pieces of paper and attached them to hanging coils of incense. In a few weeks, when the incense finally burns our names, we’ll have good luck. It’s a long game.

When I asked our guide how the Vietnamese can forgive Americans he said it’s because they’re Buddhists, believing in reincarnation, and because they’re Asian, believing in going with the flow and letting time pass. The wheel goes around, he said, and that was a long time ago.

We visited the post office, the first example of French Colonial architecture in Saigon. The French colonized Vietnam for more then 50 years. They’re long gone now, their main legacy being these beautiful buildings and the Vietnamese people’s enduring love of baguettes.

We visited a market, where you can have a suit made in just one day. Time flows differently here.

We visited a lacquer workshop. It’s an ancient art, but time has changed the artists’ perspective, and the subjects are vivid and new, touched by history.

And we went to the place no one wants to go: the War Remnants Museum. It was first called the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes, then the name was changed to the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression, and now that we’ve somehow managed to establish a good relationship between our countries, it came into its present name. This museum, quite naturally, shows the war from the Vietnamese perspective. How could it be otherwise?

When I say that no one wants to go there, I mean that there were passengers on our cruise who refused to set foot in Vietnam at all, as well as some who went to Saigon but wouldn’t go to the museum. I know that I shuddered and took a deep breath before entering, and I saw others do the same.

It’s mostly a photographic exhibit, with detailed historical accounts in the captions. For that reason you have to get very, very close to each photo, if you want to read about it. Often it’s the photographer who wrote the caption, although there’s a section devoted to photographers from many countries who did not survive the war.

It was all terribly painful to see,

but I knew I couldn’t leave without finding the section on the My Lai massacre. I won’t tell the story here; if you don’t remember it you can look it up. But here’s a tiny part of how it looked.

The photographer had provided the caption for this last shot. He said that he saw soldiers surrounding this family, and asked them to wait while he took this photograph. He then turned his back and heard the gunfire. What you see here is the very last moments of the lives of these men, women, and children.

So that’s Saigon today, risen from the ashes.

In the van on the way back I was sitting in the very front seat, so I couldn’t see any of the nine people behind me. I said, to no one in particular, not knowing where anyone fell on the political spectrum, “All that, and 58,000 American lives lost too, for nothing.” And behind me I heard several voices echo emphatically “For nothing.” Then I said “And we never learn.” And others said, one after the other, “Never….Afghanistan…..Iraq”

That was one day in Saigon, one day spent in the dust of a war fought so long ago that all is now forgiven. Let it not be forgotten.


Trouble In Beijing

October 26, 2018


First trouble is, you can scarcely breathe. See that air pollution? It’s not fog. It’s air so thick you can taste it, and believe me, it doesn’t taste good. This shot is actually at the port in Tianjin, but it was the same everywhere.

But that was the absolute least of my worries. No photos will accompany this story, because I was afraid that if I took any I might get arrested. Seriously.

One side thing I’m doing on this trip is visiting a series of Education USA offices, helping to recruit foreign students to come to the college where I work. Education USA is under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State, staffed by local people, and is usually located inside an American embassy building. That’s the case in Beijing, and I had been warned to be prepared for the fact that the building was a fortress.

Oh yes, it definitely is that. But I have an appointment with an Education USA staff person, I’m an American and I have an American passport, and it’s my embassy, right? What could possibly go wrong, except everything?

I present myself for the appointment, accompanied by my Chinese guide. I’m sure it doesn’t help that he’s dressed like some sort of teen hip-hopper, in a long denim duster with a hoodie underneath, but I don’t really know if that makes any difference.

So I show up at the east gate at the Beijing embassy as instructed, half an hour early, figuring it might take some time to get in and find my way to her office. I show my passport at the gate, show them the name of the person I’m supposed to meet, and they refuse to let me in. And by “they” I mean the Chinese guards surrounding the place. If you imagine, as I did, that our embassies are guarded by crisp battalions of our Marines, you’re in for the same surprise I got.

The guards say no Americans are allowed to come in by that particular gate. I have my Chinese guide with me and he argues with them, gives them my contact’s name and tells them I have an appointment. They ask for her phone number, but I don’t have that. Oops. What I do have is a bag with Education USA printed on it that I was given in Tokyo, and I show it to them, but they have no earthly idea about the program. I wave my passport around quite adamantly, and they definitely know I’m an American, but they still refuse to let me into my own embassy, and they aren’t the least bit nice about it. No one there speaks English at all, and they show no sign of sympathy for my plight. Finally they tell me to go to the west gate. Just to get rid of me, I guess.

I’m at the east gate, going to the west gate. The circumference of the embassy is enormous. I’m not good at judging distance, but it’s probably half a mile all the way around, maybe more. We finally arrive at the west gate, which turns out to be the entrance to a parking structure. The guards tell my guide no one is ever allowed to go in by that gate, unless it’s for parking. Also, they don’t speak English and are totally unimpressed by my passport.

A small group of Americans walks out and I beg them to help me. They say they are only “contractors traveling with diplomatic passports.” Uh, yeah, right. They’re inside the embassy, they’re contractors, and they have diplomatic passports. I sensibly refrain from asking them who they work for, because I don’t think it would be in my best interest to know that.

One of them does take pity on me and finds and calls my contact’s number. No answer, straight to voice mail. The west gate guards deny me entry just like their east gate brothers, and they tell me to go to the south gate. Are you sensing a pattern here?

At the south gate they won’t let my guide come with me, no Chinese people allowed, they say. I kind of panic, because now we’re going to be separated and it’s not clear how we will meet up again, and I’m going inside a gate but not inside the building, and I can’t understand a word anyone says. Having no choice, I walk to the entrance of the building alone, but guess what? They won’t let me in either, because I don’t have a phone number for my contact. I didn’t have the wit to ask that “contractor” guy for the number he had called, so distraught was I at the time. The guys at this entrance are friendly and even smile at me, and they speak a little English, all a welcome change, but they won’t let me in. I ask to see an American officer. No can do, you can’t see any American without an appointment. I’m an American, this is my embassy, and I can’t see anyone. Then they call someone at the east gate, who tells them to send me back, this time they will let me in. I feel caught between Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day and Dante’s nine circles of hell, but I go. Reluctantly.

When I get back to the east gate, a little more than an hour after I first arrived, a nice lady comes to meet me and lets me in. She’s a colleague of my contact, who, as it turns out, was on leave for the day even though we had an appointment, which is why no one answered her phone.

The meeting with the nice lady goes well, and it turns out to have been a worthwhile exercise in frustration and rage. However, and I can’t say this strongly enough, WTAF? The Chinese “guard” our embassy (or, as a shipboard friend suggested, hold it hostage), and an American can’t get in. If it had been an emergency would they have let me in? If I had been bleeding to death would they have called an American to help out?

I hate to say this, but I really don’t think so. I always thought that an embassy was a place of refuge for its citizens. How wrong I was. Take heed and be prepared. Your embassy may not be your friend.

Shinrin-Yoku…..Forest Bathing

September 22, 2018


Today, to celebrate my last day living on terra firma for the next quarter-year, my little family and I went forest bathing at the spectacular Bloedel Reserve.


Parts of our time there were silly,


parts were Zen,


most was green,


but there were occasional splashes of color.


I was doing a trial of my new pocket camera, purchased especially for this trip,


and I would judge that it acquitted itself very well.

And now, I feel prepared to be uprooted


and set off for parts unknown. Beauty is everywhere, and I aim to see it all.