Thursday, February 21, 2019
I never thought I had any. Wherever I lived was always temporary, and I liked it that way. When my husband bought our first house, the sentence that reconciled me to the purchase was made by our realtor, "The average American buys a new house every five years." Ha. Those were the days, back in the mid-70s.
Within eight years, we moved to the next place and after that my life was a long succession of apartments, with dreams of going farther afield. Eventually I would live in eight different dwelling places in Bangkok and Penang before returning to four different ones in Seattle. In those years I learned how to KonMari my possessions to fit into two suitcases.
That part is easy. What isn't is leaving the people I care about.
Now that I'm looking for another place to live, a friend recently asked me "Why not Bangkok?" It's a logical question, since that's been my alternate universe for over twenty years. But she is the reason why, along with some other close friends and my family. I can do it. I know how to do it, but the older I get, the higher the price becomes.
Time is infinite right up until we reach our sixties. Then we begin to assess and budget how we spend it. When I was a mere slip of a girl at 45, leaving was as easy as getting a passport. Now I know that no matter how much I love my life overseas and how many friends I may make in another part of the world, the ache of not being able to share it with the people I care about most grows stronger every year. When one of my sons came to visit me twice in Thailand, after each visit was over I cried for two days, and when my longest standing Bangkok friend returned to the States after years of being my mainstay in that city, I was unable to go downstairs to wave goodbye as he walked out the front door of our house. Expat living, when you do it on your own, is damned hard, even though it's materially more comfortable than existing in the Old Country.
Today when I went to Craigslist and examined my three different staple sites, I found several possibilities in this area. Only one was for Seattle and I'm pretty sure it was either a scam or someone else has already grabbed it. But it made me wonder. Are rents coming down in the Puget Sound market? And would I pay the top end of what I can in order to stay here, even though Tucson offers more comfort and Queens is the pinnacle of my desires? When I think of the pleasure of conversations with my friends and the joy of spontaneous visits with my sons, I say yes. I claim roots.
Posted by Janet Brown at 9:45 AM
Monday, February 18, 2019
A year ago I saw realtors clustering in the hallways of the building I'd lived in for years and I knew I was in trouble. When my landlord confirmed that yes indeed, the place was up for sale, I began to think of what to pack and what to jettison.
This wasn't an unfamiliar mental exercise. I'd left that building and returned to it twice over the past ten years but it had always been there for me. If I had a Seattle home, it was the International Apartments, and foolishly I'd thought it would always be there, as it had been for many others over the past hundred and four years. But boom town Seattle, flush with tech money, had other plans.
The workers in previous high times of this city had been gold prospectors, fishermen, loggers, shipbuilders, and factory workers. This current crop worked with intangibles, the Internet, the Cloud, fostering dreams and satisfying desires on the world's computer screens. They were paid beyond any laborer's wildest dreams and they were filling up the city, paying astronomical rents and keeping the restaurants alive. They were crowding the rest of us out.
For the past year, I've shared a house with two friends and looked religiously on Craigslist for apartments. Craigslist is a lot like the mail order catalogs of my childhood. With a flick of my fingers, I can look at apartments all over the world, and I have. Mexico, Bangkok, Dublin, Marseilles, and almost every city in this country with a major league baseball team--I've peered at photos and assessed rents in them all.
A friend says I'm fantasizing but I'm really not. I've moved often enough in the past seventy years to become an expert on relocation, and some of those moves have involved a passport. So far only one was a disaster, a short-lived tenancy in Malaysia that was a financial disaster, a foretaste of hell, and a wake-up call. But Penang taught me to do my research and spend a lot of time in thought before leaping into a new life in another place.
When this all began, I said I'd give it a year, living in someone else's house, hoping that an opening in a low-income building would come my way, and continuing to scour online ads for possible dwelling places. That year will be up in three more months and I'm facing the reality that I may not have the luxury of living near my family and my friends much longer. My new deadline is this coming autumn.
Like Amazon, I've found two possibilities: Tucson and Queens.
Tucson has heat (oh god does it ever) and beautiful light, along with seasonal thunderstorms. Its sky is right up there with Cambodia's and Northeastern Thailand's. There are apartments that are only slightly higher than what I pay for living in this house, and according to food reviews, it has Chinese restaurants that use Sichuan pepper and chili oil. The library system is good, and there are bookstores.
It also looks quellingly suburban. But there are Ubers.
Queens. What can I say? It has everything I want and a winter that I don't. For the same price as a very nice apartment in Tucson or a 420-friendly travel trailer in this past of the world, I could share an apartment in South Richmond Hill, a couple of blocks away from sari shops, East Indian groceries, and a diner that knows how to make egg creams and ice cream sodas. It's close to two subway lines and the Atlantic Ocean is an hour away.
But living with someone else is a crap shoot that's easier played when you're in your twenties. At seventy, not so much. But it's New York.
So--I have all summer to ponder this and perhaps a reconnaissance trip or two for reality therapy. Meanwhile, I'm haunted by Tucson or Queens, the Lady or the Tiger.
Where would you go? Which would you choose? (This question is not rhetorical.)
Sunday, February 17, 2019
I have a confession to make. That snowstorm and its aftershocks--my fault, all mine. Back in the earliest days of February, I decided to increase my walking from 2-3 miles to 5. And then it snowed.
Snow on its own is a lovely thing to walk through, both when it falls and when it's fresh on the ground. Happy to have a chance to wear my fur jacket which I paired in true Pacific Northwest fashion with red rubber boots, I trudged through the transformed streets, taking pictures and smiling at the happy dogs whose morning walks had become a trip to canine Disneyland.
Even when I stayed inside, my world was different. The white landscape changed the quality of the light. Even with a heavy cloud cover, the days were bright and once when I woke up at 3 am, I was certain it was time to get up. "White-out" they call it in Alaska and in this part of the country it was almost hallucinogenic and definitely surreal.
The beauty of it almost made up for the truth that it closed Seattle down. Buses were scanty, children stayed home from school, flights were cancelled, library doors were locked. That began to feel oddly familiar. It was like living in Bangkok when political strife took to the streets, or like Fairbanks, Alaska during a siege of heavy ice fog.
And then the ice took over. The University of Washington swears that a student who died after slipping on campus ice and hitting her head perished from natural causes. I began to salt my porch steps, knowing it was an environmental sin but finding that I couldn't break through the packed and icy snow with a shovel. Walking to buy groceries took forever because the idea of a broken hip made me cautious. The world shrunk and it stayed that way for days.
There are still patches of dirty snow in my front yard while the back has lost its beauty and is fifty shades of grey-green. The cold prevails but the sidewalks are mostly clear and dry. My cat continues to stare balefully out the window and becomes worried when he sees me put on my boots. He's eight years old and has never seen anything like this before. For the first few days of winter he burrowed under my comforter, only emerging when it was absolutely necessary. There were a few late afternoons when I followed his example, with a book and a cup of tea.
When I was small, my mother would tease me at times with a song about Jenny, who persistently made her mind up, with disastrous results. I thought of those lyrics often in the past three weeks, when my walks were perfunctory, careful, and much shorter than five miles..
Posted by Janet Brown at 10:04 AM
Saturday, February 17, 2018
The minute I read about a book that interests me, usually in reviews that focus on works soon to be published, I order it. Right now I have eight forthcoming titles on order, and I've recently read four novels that just arrived on the shelves. No, I'm not wealthy, nor am I starving myself in order to buy books. I have a library card.
Unfortunately I live in a city of avid readers who know the same secret. When I reserve a book not yet published, I'm often #300 in line. Fortunately our library system has adopted the wonderful idea of first-come, first-serve with Peak Picks, a section of books that can't be reserved or renewed. Recently I looked at the Peak Pick shelf in my branch library; there was a book I had reserved months ago and wouldn't receive until after 338 other people had finished with it. Gleefully I snatched up Tayari Jones' An American Marriage and raced my way through it in a single evening. Today I'll take it back and hope for another surprise.
This is what the current President wants to weaken, by reducing federal funding for public libraries. He must know that Fire and Fury is currently on the Peak Pick shelves, and has 1400 people on the reserved list, waiting for one of the 452 copies that can be renewed. Or perhaps he's chafed by the number of readers who have checked out the 191 copies of Hillary's What Happened, which appeared on the Peak Pick shelves the same day that it showed up in bookstores. Of course this is a man who regularly rails against the free press and invented the epithet "fake news" for anything that puts him in an unfavorable light. Why would he be in favor of free libraries, those places where people go to read, among other things, newspapers?
We all provide financial support for our libraries, through taxes which are then reflected in the price of our rent, the cost of our groceries. It's a price that the city I live in has agreed is worth paying and because of that our libraries are open every single day, offering books that many of us otherwise could never afford to read. I am confident that even without federal support, my city would still have libraries. But the question is unavoidable: Can we afford a president who doesn't see the value of an electorate who reads, regardless of its income level?
I don't think we can.
Posted by Janet Brown at 12:43 PM
Friday, December 22, 2017
No childhood is idyllic and mine was not an exception, but there were times with no dark corners, and one of them was when we went out to find a Christmas tree. We all went with our father, except for our mother who stayed home to untangle the Christmas lights. Our father carried an axe; we tried our best to keep from getting snow in our boots.
There were no drifts in the woods but we were in search of small trees, ones that we could carry, and those bordered the meadows where snow was blown into deep rippling dunes. Soon the smallest children whose feet were closest to the ground yelled "I have snow in my boots." The rest of us remained stoic, not wanting to break the good mood that our father was always in when we hunted down our Christmas tree.
There was a lot of amiable argument about which tree was perfect. We had to examine the best ones from every angle, looking for unevenly spaced boughs or bends in the trunk. Our standards dropped as our socks grew wet from melted snow and at last even our father was willing to compromise. We all cheered when the tree began to topple and each of us reached between its branches to grab the trunk and carry it home, bellowing out "Oh Christmas Tree" every step of the way.
Our mother had cleared a place for it while we were gone, and we tore into boxes of ornaments, looking for the five little Swiss elves, one for each of us. The big room that was our downstairs living space soon was filled with the scent of fresh spruce boughs, and the tree, not yet full of lights and baubles, was so majestic that for a minute, I wished we could leave it untrimmed.
We all lost interest by the time that the finishing touches of tinsel needed to be added. Our father always suggested we stand back and hurl the silver strips at the branches and our mother was the one who carefully draped the strands in judicious clusters to resemble the icicles they were designed to replicate.
Finally it was time to place the star on the top, which meant our father had to climb a stepladder as we clung to the bottom, ensuring his safety. At last the lights were turned on and Christmas began.
I loved to get up before anyone else, go downstairs, and turn on the tree. Sitting in the silence and darkness of early morning, I stared at the gleam and radiance of the tree we had found together and was certain there was no way to celebrate the end of the year except with an axe in hand, snow-filled boots, and carols that filled the snow-filled meadows, floating into still and frozen air.
Posted by Janet Brown at 9:22 AM
Monday, December 18, 2017
I was feeling frazzled when I stumbled off an evening flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong. I had come to spend a month in Chungking Mansions, a plan that had me apprehensive. People had told me it was a center for all sorts of risky business and my curiosity had prevailed over caution. But now I wondered how I would find my way through the labyrinthine hallways that I’d seen in the movie Chungking Express,and whether I would end up sharing my bed with hungry insects. I tried not to think of advice given to a friend before she stayed in that notorious spot: “Bring a gun.” She had moved to a hotel farther up Nathan Road only a few days after she had checked into a Chungking Mansion guesthouse.
Deciding I needed a little pampering before I faced my destination, I swerved away from the Airport Express signs and headed off in search of a taxi queue. I’d changed a substantial sum of money to Hong Kong dollars before I’d boarded the plane; it would be an expensive indulgence but I would be living the Spartan life soon enough. I deserved that taxi, I told myself.
I wasn’t a neophyte traveler. I’d gone alone to cities in Southeast Asia and China, and had always been successful in finding my way from airports to my destination. So it was with no trepidation that I joined a crowd of travelers heading down an exit hallway that I was certain would lead me to a taxi stand. When a shabbily dressed man approached me and asked me if I wanted a taxi, I was more than happy to hand over my suitcase and follow in his wake. Just like Bangkok, I thought, taxi queues are for chumps.
The man led me across a parking lot to a large van. In Thailand this is a common form of public transit and although I’d looked forward to the privacy of a taxi, at least the additional passengers who would ride with me would help defray the cost of the fare. I climbed in, the man tossed my suitcase on the floor beside me, and then slid the door shut. I was the only person in the vehicle aside from the man in the driver’s seat. As the door clicked into place, he started the engine.
“How much?” That this was a question I should have asked several minutes earlier was a fact that struck me with full force. There was no reply, and the driver pulled onto the open road without picking up any other fares.
I began to feel incredibly stupid, How many times had I read about naïve tourists being taken for a ride in New York City, one that ended in a demand that approximated a small fortune? But I was in Asia, I consoled myself, not Manhattan. The most I’d ever been overcharged in Bangkok was twenty dollars—Hong Kong, of course, would be more expensive, but certainly not up to New York standards.
I made myself relax and began to enjoy the lights of the approaching city that gleamed on the dark water. The driver broke into polite, pleasant taxi conversation and I responded with a sense of relief.
He proudly identified the neon extravaganza that was Nathan Road and waved at a building that we passed, “That’s Chungking Mansions,” he told me. “Stop here, please,” I said. He kept going.
We pulled into a dimly lit, empty street and parked near an ATM. The driver pulled out a laminated card with rates printed on it; this much for a passenger, so much for a bag, another sum for the privilege of using a highway tunnel, and the final amount being the fare to Kowloon. When the numbers were added up, the sum was substantial and I tried a feeble attempt at bargaining. He laughed.
“That is the rate. If you don’t have enough, we can use the ATM.”
He was no longer smiling and neither was I. The phone I had played with at the beginning of our journey, hoping he thought I was texting a local contact, was useless. I hadn’t yet bought a SIM card for Hong Kong. I opened my bag and pulled out my Hong Kong dollars.
The fare he demanded wasn’t quite as much as the money I had with me, but it was about $200 US dollars. As pleasantly as I could, I asked, “May I have one of your business cards?”
“Why? You want to use me again?” He smiled as he handed me a card with a name and number that I was certain would be useless.
And of course it was. When the Nepalese tout who greeted me at the entrance of Chungking Mansions looked horrified at the amount of money I had lost and tried to call the printed phone number, it didn’t exist. “What did the man look like?” When I gave him a description, he said, “He’s done that before to many people; they paid him more money than you did because they didn’t know. Here, give me your phone.”
He led me to a place where I could buy a Hong Kong SIM card and then put his number into my contact list. “Call me if anybody gives you any more trouble,” he said. He took me to a guesthouse where I was given a clean bed in a quiet room and suddenly Chungking Mansions felt like a place where I would be comfortable and safe—just so long as I took public transportation to get there from now on.
For years after that, I stayed in Chungking Mansions when I was in Hong Kong, always for a month at a time, and the only thing that ever made me frightened during my visits was the possibility of a fire. The wiring was often visible, tangled in terrifying clumps above the entrances to guesthouses, and kitchen carts filled with cooked food came from the upper floors to the ground floor food stalls every morning. Although I loved the smell of curry and freshly baked naan that drifted into my room at night, the thought of propane tanks and open flame being used somewhere close to my bed did nothing to make my sleep tranquil. I never stayed higher than the ninth floor and had my escape route down the staircase timed to the second.
It was the ugliest spot I had ever spent time in. The windows I insisted on having gave me a view of grey, mildewed concrete walls, windowsills strewn with garbage that was eaten by pigeons, and clothing suspended from air conditioners, drying in air that smelled like wet mops. The stairway was blotched with the red stains of spit from betel chewers and the windows on the landings often sported tiny holes that looked as though they had been made by bullets. The food gave me Delhi Belly if I ate it for more than two days in a row. My rooms were always clean with walls of immaculate white tile, but were so small that I took my morning shower only after putting towels under the bathroom threshold to keep rivulets of bathwater from trickling under my bed.
But there was an honest sense of community in Chungking Mansions that appealed to me. Many of the people who worked there lived in the place and at that time, most of the people who stayed there were repeat visitors from third-world countries who had come as traders, business people. They left pushing carts stacked high with bags and boxes that had been swaddled in duct tape, on their way home to Africa and the Subcontinent. When they returned to Chungking Mansions, they were greeted as friends and surrounded by colleagues as soon as they came in from the street. They would stay in the same guesthouses they had used for years, chatting in the reception area with people from other countries, all of them using English as their common language. The long lines standing in wait for the building’s elevators were convivial spots and at night the hallways on the ground floor were boulevards where passing men clasped hands in greeting and stopped to form small clusters of conversation.
High stacks of brightly printed fabric from African countries gave welcome splashes of color to shops that sold bolts of cheap Chinese cloth, glass cases filled with Indian pastries gleamed like displays at Tiffany’s, and on the floor above, shops sold Bollywood videos, packaged temple offerings, sticks of kohl, and wizened vegetables. Bob Marley’s face stared into the stream of passersby from a stall that sold hip-hop clothes and at the end of a corridor that led from the building to Nathan Road, an old man had racks of paperback books attached to the wall, along with postcards and an impressive collection of skin magazines. At the end of the corridor was a newsstand where the proprietor usually was in the company of a cat. Behind him were stacked cages, each holding a feline; I never found out why.
It was a self-sufficient urban village where I could find laundries, meals that had flavor, drinking water, newspapers, phone cards, toilet paper, and a stunning collection of cosmetics and shampoo in the adjoining building that paid homage to Wong Kar-Wai’s classic film by calling itself Chungking Express. If I had been able to wait until eleven o’clock, I could have had tiny cups of dark, lethally strong coffee at a Turkish food stall. And I could do all of this in English. I could have spent my entire Hong Kong visit without ever leaving this place if it hadn’t been so dark and crowded. As it was, I had to go out all day, every day to keep from going stir-crazy and even then my claustrophobia set in after the first month.
Hong Kong is a city where every need can be filled, but this is difficult for people like me who come with a small supply of cash and don’t know the territory or the language. Local friends would lead me to a small counter in a busy shopping mall where they conducted a transaction in Chinese for whatever I happened to need at the moment. I soon learned that I could do that on my own at a small counter, but in English, in Chungking Mansions.
No matter where I stayed, whether it was halfway up a hillside in the New Territories, in a Shenzhen hotel room, or an Airbnb apartment in North Point, I ended up on the ground floor of my first home in Hong Kong. It was where I bought my SIM cards, exchanged currency, had luggage repaired, and in a pinch, could always find a place to sleep. But each time I returned, I found a different place.
Nathan Road had been discovered by tourists from the mainland, who came with their wheeled suitcases that they filled with everything from instant noodles to finery from Chanel. They clogged the aisles of the international supermarket that was across the street from Chungking Mansions, heaping their grocery carts with cans of baby formula, boxes of Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and packages of disposable diapers. They stood in line at Cartier and filled the seats of every Starbucks for miles around. And because, like me, they saw no reason to spend a fortune for a place to sleep, their headquarters became Chungking Mansions.
Although the rooms were still cheap by Hong Kong standards, guesthouse prices were soon jacked up to meet the growing demand. Rumor had it that one place had rooms that commanded a nightly rate of 200 U.S dollars. One night, on a weekend, when I came looking for a room after ten o’clock, I ended up paying 100 U.S. for a room that in the past would have topped out at under 50, even during Chinese New Year when prices reached the stratosphere.
Food stalls began to disappear on the ground floor, replaced by rows upon rows of currency exchanges, all proclaiming their rate for RMB, and shops that sold luggage on wheels. The hip-hop clothing store was gone, relegated to a higher floor, and the fabric shops had been condensed to single counters in shops that sold cheap phones and SIM cards. The hallways were thronged with Chinese travelers; the clusters of men who had spent hours in deep conversation were no longer in evidence. In the corridor where there had been books and cats now there were neither. The old man who had once sold me a copy of The Help when I was desperate for something to read now had wheeled suitcases lined up against the wall. “Business is different,” he said.
“Yes, so much change,” the man who sold me a SIM card on a recent visit agreed with a tinge of bitterness to his tone. The guesthouse where I had always stayed had empty chairs in the reception area, chairs that in years past always had held people who were busily packing merchandise into cartons and black garbage bags.
To reach the guesthouse, I stood waiting for the elevator in the company of only one other person, a Nigerian who chatted with me in English accented with French. Suddenly we were joined by two others, men with Subcontinental origins who stepped in front of us, close to the elevator doors.
“What kind of people are you, to step in front of a lady,” the Nigerian snapped at them, “We were here first and you push ahead like that. Who do you think you are?”
“Calm down,” he was told, “there are only four of us here. No one is being pushed out; we’ll all get in the elevator. No problem.”
“But you are so impolite. Do you think you’re better than this lady--or me?”
“It’s okay,” one of the men said quietly, “Be cool. Chungking Mansions is for business, not for fighting.”
As we all stepped into the elevator without bloodshed, I knew the code of this community was still in place and just for a moment, once again I felt at home.
Posted by Janet Brown at 10:59 AM
Sunday, December 17, 2017
Today I posted on this blog the first piece of writing I've done since I removed myself from Facebook, and today, for the first time, I find myself missing something that I know is bad for me. For the past several years, I'd put a link on Facebook to whatever I'd written here and within minutes, there was at least one "like." It was an insecure writer's dream come true, a rapid acknowledgment that the writing had been read. When I was really lucky, among the "likes" would be a verbal response, but even when there wasn't, the "likes" made me happy. In fact, they made me high.
We all know about the rats who would hit the same lever again and again to get a jolt of pleasure, choosing that over food or drink. For me that's what Facebook had become, a quick hit of gratification that was beginning to mean more than the writing. I was becoming a Facebook junkie, hitting that button over and over to see who was paying attention to me and who I could pay attention to.
Other people may be able to handle this, but I can't. I crave connection with people I love and people I like and people I'm interested in and people who are interested in me more than I long for almost anything else in the world. The good thing about that is I love to spend time with friends. I love to write, forging a link with people I may never know. And as it turns out, I love to be able to have contact with people by simply logging into Facebook; with a click of a mouse, the world is with me at any time of day or night. It's easy and that's what made it wrong for someone like me.
Can't sleep? Log onto Facebook. Need a break from work? Facebook's right there. Missing a friend? See what they've had to say on Facebook.
And that's a large part of what made me leave. When I did see people I cared about, the phrase "Right, I read about that on Facebook," cropped up all too often. Thanks to Facebook, it seemed as though we now knew too much, and too little. about each other.
Sometimes it seemed as though interacting on Facebook was almost as meaningful as arranging a visit. It certainly had supplanted email and long telephone chats were as dead as sending postcards. I had friends who lived in the same city as I whom I saw regularly on Facebook and rarely anyplace else. I had friends I'd never met. I had friends with whom I corresponded simply by exchanging "likes."
It began to feel as though I hadn't finished writing anything until I'd immediately put it on Facebook. Snapshots were instantly there in a single click. In fact nothing seemed to have taken place in any part of my life unless it appeared on Facebook to be greeted with the instant gratification of "likes." It became bad manners to read a post written by a friend without clicking "like." My world became truncated by squeezing it into status updates and tarnished if the updates weren't acknowledged by Facebook friends. This was the worst place for an attention-seeker like me to be.
Then there was the incoherence of it all. I had long felt that Facebook was like a cocktail party where the guests all had ADD. Nothing fit together. A cat video would be followed by an impassioned political opinion which would be instantly succeeded by a recipe from the New York Times and then the news that somebody's parent had died. And it never stopped.
That barrage of unconnected facts and images and personal messages began to affect the quality of my attention. There just wasn't enough room in my memory for everything that jostled for place within it and I began to forget important things to make room for random details. And yet I was eager for more, worried that I would miss something crucial if I didn't log onto Facebook.
The worst part of all was I was so busy writing updates and responses and clearing up the inevitable misunderstandings that come from quick messages written on the fly that I wasn't writing much of anything else. The unceasing buzz in the background that Facebook had become for me was clogging up any sort of creativity that I might ever have had. When I faced a blank document, there was too much inner noise for me to settle into a pattern of thought.
When I was fourteen, I read Truman Capote's short story, Master Misery, over and over again. Each time it made me cry and with every passing year, it has taken on greater weight. When Mr. Revercombe tells Sylvia that he can no longer buy her dreams, because she has nothing left, now I feel a sadness too laden with dread for tears. I left Facebook because I began to feel that I was trading everything I cared about for that quick fix, the instant gratification of "likes," and that eventually it would all be sold.
Each time I think I miss Facebook, I remind myself that I will never have to look at the words "unfollow" or "unfriend" ever again. That alone could be worth all of the "likes" that I will no longer garner for any writing I may ever do again.
Hello. I'm Janet and I'm in recovery from Facebook...
Posted by Janet Brown at 1:17 PM
When I travel alone in countries where I don’t have language, food takes on a dimension that goes beyond nourishment, or even pleasure. It ensures that I’ll have company at least once a day.
Because I’m the kind of woman who thinks facing the world before my morning coffee ranks right up there with being flogged in the town square, I usually have breakfast in my room. This sounds far more luxurious than it is, since any food that might accompany that coffee is often a couple of bananas, ziplocked in their skins with no need for refrigeration and functioning more like a vitamin pill than a meal. The best accompaniment I’ve ever found was one I’d often buy from a Shenzhen street cart to eat the next morning, crisp, flaky little pastries that were like round discs of phyllo, filled with slightly sweetened bean paste. They were just sweet enough to make my instant coffee bearable, and the texture of crisp and smooth was irresistible. Three of those with Nescafe was like jet fuel, and if anything ever takes me back to Shenzhen, they’d be a major factor in my decision.
Since coffee is the main component of my mornings, food doesn’t come into play with any sort of complexity until later in the day, but when it does, it hits full force.
On a good day, I’ve wandered and stared and fed myself with my eyes until my blood sugar level plummets to absolute zero, With any luck at all, I find an egg tart or a croissant from Starbucks, something to eat quickly without having to stop. Days like that are so satisfying that I don’t need anything more than a return to my room with anything that’s portable and not messy: supermarket sushi and a tiny bottle of red wine when I’m in Hong Kong, unsalted cashews and a beer in Shenzhen. After a day of sensory assault, I don’t have enough energy to muster an appetite or to face any sort of human interaction. I’m so full of images and questions that there’s no room for anything else. It’s that kind of day that makes me get on a plane and leave home for a couple of months, but it isn’t, as current jargon has it, sustainable.
In most of the places where I go, I try to avoid preconceptions, which means I don’t do a lot of research ahead of time. I do my best to be as unburdened with information as possible so I can start from nothing at all. The most preparation I submit to is finding a place to stay for the first few days and then I start asking questions. This technique goes straight to hell in places where not only do I have no language, I have no internet. That’s when I often hit the wall and head for a place where I know I can get comfort food.
In Shenzhen, there was a spot near my hotel that called itself Granville Whale’s Cafe. After a humiliating lunch that involved plastic chopsticks and slippery dumplings, I stopped there for a cup of coffee and a chance to recover my equilibrium. The coffee turned out to be stratospherically above Starbucks, the menu offered smoked salmon, and the manager had gone to school in the U.K. It was a place where I could get a meal without effort and a dash of conversation in English. I went there several times a week.
I had the bad luck of being in Shenzhen during Chinese New Year. Although the streets and the subways were uncrowded, the only places that were open were shopping malls. The day that I discovered that the mall near my hotel had an outdoor cafe attached to Emporio Armani where I could have a glass of wine and a plate of truffle fries was a triumph. The wine was mediocre but it was the only by-the-glass option in my neighborhood. I would go there to sit in the sun, surrounded by chic, cigarette-smoking girls and their companions. It shouldn’t have been soothing, but it was.
Spending time in Hong Kong can be difficult for a claustrophobe like me, with its tiny rooms, crowded subways, and spiderweb streets. There are days when the rush of people that usually exhilarates me makes my pores clench and every nerve shriek. Familiar spots like Starbucks or McDonalds where I would never have a meal but depend on for free internet and clean bathrooms usually are packed solid with every seat taken.
The most difficult thing to find in this city is a spot where you can sit in a quiet place, without being rushed away by people eager to take your seat once you leave. It took me years to find one but once I did, I clung to it. It was on a bar street and probably was a raucous little joint at night, but in late afternoon I could sit near the huge glass door, look at passersby, read the South China Morning Post, check email, and think. The food was Western and starchy, the wine was marginally drinkable, but the background music was unobtrusive and the people at the other tables seemed to be there for the same reason as I.
The neighborhood I stayed in was once heavily populated by immigrants from Shanghai in flight from post-Liberation China. They had left a legacy of flavor that I loved, but so did hundreds of other people. I learned that I could eat well or I could have supermarket sushi in my room or I could relax at Big Bite. It wasn’t a matter of taste, it was a question of need.
Silence or good food? Solitude or the presence of others? Solo travel carries Faustian bargains like this one and I’m always grateful for places that makes this choice a part of my journey.
Posted by Janet Brown at 10:48 AM
Saturday, November 25, 2017
There used to be a little song based on a piece of sentimental verse that was believed to sum up Thanksgiving. "Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go," it began and went on to sing about horses and sleighs and white and drifted snow, ending with "Hoorah for the pumpkin pie." It was a fine accompaniment to the Norman Rockwell magazine covers that showed a plump little grandmother proudly bearing a turkey that was at least half her size to a table filled with her well-scrubbed, beaming family.
When my sisters and I were small, we sang that song with a strong feeling of kinship. Although our one surviving grandmother was a continent away, we had a horse and a harness that was occasionally attached to a kind of toboggan and whisked us through the white and drifted snow. There were always guests who managed to get to our house for dinner, over the river and through the woods. And there was always pumpkin pie.
It was a day that held no expectations, except for the food, and that was more time-consuming than it was difficult. It's perfectly true that anybody can come up with a decent Thanksgiving meal with enough practice and doggedness. I know because eventually even I was able to do that--and I enjoyed it. There was something very wonderful about making the same meal every year, as my mother had done and hers before her, all the way back to the Pilgrims.
But now we know better. Those Pilgrims and those Native Americans never came together in that collegial gustatory truce that we've been replicating since the good old days of Plymouth Rock. And that decent Thanksgiving meal, over the river and through the woods, Grandmother's house, those Norman Rockwell covers?
Assuming there are grandchildren, Grandmother is more likely to live in a tiny apartment with no on-street parking than she is in a snow-covered family home. For 364 days of the year, she probably cooks as little as possible and has lost her touch in the kitchen, while the daughters of the house have been at work the day before and probably will be on the day after. Getting up at dawn to make the stuffing and fist the turkey is about as attractive a proposition as a raging case of the bubonic plague.
Besides, that decent Thanksgiving meal just isn't the way many families care to eat anymore. Even if they manage to clear a plate of stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, rolls, butter, and turkey, they now have days of leftovers to contend with. One feast becomes a week of reruns, ending in nobody's favorite--turkey soup.
There are people who manage to recreate a traditional Thanksgiving, I know there are. I've seen them on Facebook and I salute them with all of my heart. For the rest of us, to rest and be thankful is the untarnished core of that third Thursday in November, and that can take any form we choose to bring to it.
For me? It turns out the one food that means Thanksgiving to me is pie, and this is the one day of the year that I like to make it. They are ungainly objects that never show up on social media but they reflect my heritage--Pennsylvania Dutch shoo-fly pie and New England cranberry pie. To hell with that grandmother in the kitchen before daybreak, to hell with those apocryphal Pilgrims, to hell with Norman Rockwell. On Thanksgiving and the days after, I eat pie and never once groan about the monotony of leftovers.
There is pie, and I am grateful.
Posted by Janet Brown at 3:25 PM
Friday, November 17, 2017
There was one last ferry route from North Point that I hadn’t yet taken and I had deliberately saved it for last. It went to Hung Hom, an area of Kowloon that I’d always thought was a bit bedraggled, but from there another ferry would take me back to Hong Kong Island. The ferry to Wanchai was a longer route than the Star Ferry but had much the same view of the skyline, with the same expansiveness of the other North Point seascapes. If I made a complete round trip, it could take hours perhaps and I couldn’t think of a better way to end the day.
The sky, water, and distant mountains had all taken on different shades of blue, from azure to cerulean to the pale and smoky navy of spectral shapes silhouetted against the horizon. When I stood on the open lower deck of each ferry, I was wrapped in a brilliant monochrome, broken only by buildings and the surprise of green hills that rose behind them. A sailboat with a black sail floated in front of me, followed rather improbably by one whose sail was pure white, and suddenly I realized the day I was living had become visual poetry.
Then the ferry pulled into Hung Hom, where I learned there was no other route. The ferry to Wanchai had been discontinued several years earlier.
Drowning my sorrows in a drink from Starbucks, I looked at where I had ended up. There was a luxurious hotel in a park-like setting that was edged by the waterfront walkway that every neighborhood seemed to provide, but this one was studded with signposts that said the Hung Hom Promenade would lead to the one that ended in the Star Ferry.
One reason I rarely went to this part of Kowloon was because it seemed so cut off from the rest of the world, broken and scarred by highways and railway lines. My walks there had never been ones I’d cared to repeat or expand upon, so this promenade was an unexpected present. It was a wide and almost empty path with an unfamiliar sense of space that gave me a fresh jolt of energy, until it came to an end.
A sign directed me toward a new walkway that curved up a tree-covered hill and I obediently followed. Suddenly I was above the harbor, with the entire Hong Kong skyline on my left and a thick screen of greenery on my right. Beyond that was the ugly elevated highway that Hung Hom had turned into an asset.
It ended in construction when the path descended into the harbor neighborhood of Tsim Sha Tsui and the Star Ferry. Even so, I was delighted by the unexpected beauty of a neighborhood that I had been quite certain had none and the promise of an expanded harbor walk to come. Kowloon was capitalizing on its gift of space, turning that portion of Hong Kong from a grim and dingy sprawl to a destination point that would match its more sophisticated neighbor across the harbor. Although many of the area’s changes made me queasy, this was one I looked forward to watching.