Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Seeing What You Choose to See

Bangkok is definitely not a conventionally beautiful city, and when I first arrive, I'm always overwhelmed by the grubbiness of its streets, the grey gloom of its cement structures, the chaotic overcrowding of its sidewalks, and the truly hideous skybridges that festoon every street and have been painted a leprous shade of green many years ago.

At first I spend a lot of time looking at the sky.

And then after a couple of weeks I begin to notice small splashes of color and beauty in the middle of what at first seems relentless ugliness. My little soi is a good case in point. It has no immediate charm, other than the small children who emerge as the day begins to cool and play loudly and happily well into the night.

But there are flowers. The house below my apartment window has enough potted plants to fill a small arboretum, and many of them are blossoming bursts of color. I've begun to focus on them when I look out my window or when I walk down the muddy street. They make me look for other visual pleasures--a wall covered with a cascading vine of fuchsia flowers, the unexpected piercing white of blooming jasmine.

And I realize that my balcony, miniscule as it is, is the ideal spot for my own small collection of fragrance and flowers. As I fall asleep at night, I think of colors, living and breathing and growing, giving beauty to my tiny portion of a city that I love.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What Goes Up...

This time around, it's both easier and more difficult to live in Bangkok. Although my internet all too often moves at a rate that a glacier could easily outpace, I eventually can send an email that will reach its destination, can check my family's facebook pages and blogs, see news from the U.S. on my laptop, send photos downloaded from the digital camera that my sister gave me for Christmas, all things that were barely functional or not yet dreamed of when I lived here seven years ago.

And yet these are privileges that can catch me off guard and plunge me into a state of sadness in a millisecond--a violent yearning to see my sons in the same casual, spur-of-the moment "let's have dinner" fashion that we have done so easily for the past few years.

I'm lucky that Matt and Nick were both in the same city as I was until recently--I'm lucky that they're men I deeply like as well as love--I'm lucky--and I tell myself that when I'm engulfed in a bout of homesickness that comes as stealthily and inexorably as vertigo.

I remind myself that this is normal, and that it will never stop taking over on a semi-regular basis. I tell myself that I knew this would happen and to suck it up. I go out into the world and buy toothpaste and Kleenex and food and two Sunday papers. I take pictures to send them and plan to buy and send them the tee shirts that I saw yesterday with the logo for Red Bull that said Dead Bull instead. And I wait, for emails from them, for a good story written on one of their web sites, for this feeling to go back into its corner and wait to pounce out at me with no warning on some other day.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Books for Laos

Please take a minute or two to go to Jessi Cotterill's blog and watch the video clip that she has in her latest post, responding to Katia's questions about reading.
Jessi and her husband Colin (author of The Coroner's Lunch and four (to date--more to come) other wonderful mystery novels that are set in Laos--look for them! Read them!) are the instigators of Books for Laos. They buy books in huge quantities, take them to schools in Laos and put them into the hands of children.

The video clip is the perfect way to start your day--I promise it will keep you smiling for the next 24 hours regardless of what challenges may confront you. Do look at it--and go to Colin Cotterill's website to learn more about Books for Laos and how to contribute to it.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Reading, Always Reading

Questions sent from Katia Novet Saint Lot:

1. Do you remember the first book you ever read on your own?

It was Treasure Island, a beautiful, illustrated, slipcased edition, and I read it on my first flight from Alaska to New York City when I was six. It was an unforgettable experience, because I was allowed to read until I fell asleep--no "lights-out" on the plane!

2. Do you remember how you felt? If not, maybe you remember how you felt seeing a child read for the first time?

Nothing has ever been so joyful as entering that world for the first time and gulping it down as quickly as I could. I was a greedy reader from the very first minute and have had to learn to read slowly over the decades.

3. Do you remember a book that you read again and again as a child?

I fell in love with Rumer Godden's An Episode of Sparrows, about two children in post-World War Two London who created a garden in a bombed-out ruin. I read it over and over again, took it to bed with me and slept with it under my pillow, much to the detriment of the binding.

4. Why that book? Have you read it again as an adult? If so, was it like you remembered?

It was a book so far removed from the wilderness of Alaska that I grew up in--and yet Lovejoy and Tip became my best friends. They were street children, tough and prickly, who became unified in creating something beautiful in the middle of devastation. It had echoes of The Secret Garden, which I read much later, but unlike that classic, it contained hints of explanation about the inexplicable behavior of adults, who figure strongly in Tip and Lovejoy's fates--and the ending is one that has the satisfying conclusion found in the fairytales that I loved. Now as an adult, the book is much more sad than it was when I first approached it with a child's fearless, unsentimental, and rather savage point of view.

5. Why do you read?

I read to find connections with people I may never meet and with parts of the world that I may never see. I read for stories, ravenous for plots, racing through a book to reach the end and then returning to it over and over to savor its language and ideas. I read for the same reason that I write, to be able to carry on an ongoing conversation with the world.

Now--Vladimir , Kristianne,Alison, Matt, Nick, Katharine, Corinne, Jessi, and Cat--want to play? Tell us about your life in books by cutting, pasting, and answering these questions on your blogs???

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Texts in the City

From the minute that I first saw this place, it became one of my favorite spots in Bangkok. The Neilson Hayes Library has been an oasis of books for this city since 1869, and when you first walk in the door, it seems as though the only addition since it first opened over a century ago has been air conditioning.

The books are all behind glass in wooden book cases and the terracotta trim around the windows is as enticing as what waits for the reader. It is hushed and tranquil, the way that libraries were before they became multimedia centers, and there are card catalogs--no computer databases or even microfiche. There are no videos or dvds to check out--only the printed word.

And yet the books range from the distant past to the recently published. Books that had just arrived in my well-stocked Seattle bookstore are available at this library, as well as reference volumes that would make an antiquarian bookseller drool.

This is part of the children's section, where there are regular Saturday story hours, followed by arts and craft activities. It's a corner where I plan to sink into a jellybean-colored beanbag chair and read for hours.

It's a traditional place but certainly not at all stuffy. On Halloween it will host a Solve the Murder evening, complete with cocktails, where attendees are urged to "dress to kill."
Definitely an innovative and sane approach to library fundraising!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

One of my Favorite Things

I couldn't buy these in the States for love or money, but they are one baht each at a stall near Victory Monument. They are somewhat larger than fruit made from marzipan and have a glossy sheen. When you eat one it has a skin that is very like that on a Sabrett's hotdog. They would be very festive on a birthday cake.

I don't like to eat them but I do love to look at them, and I marvel that they are so carefully made by hand and then sold for what amounts to only a few pennies a piece.

They are called look choob and I'm afraid I have no idea what they are made of--rice flour?? Help me, Mrs. Cotterill!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

How to Buy A Sofa in Bangkok

Step 1) Take the subway to Ladprao Road--it's quite possibly the ugliest thoroughfare in Bangkok but it boasts an impressive number of furniture shops.
Step 2) Get on the slowest bus you can find. Be sure it's not airconditioned because you will need to sit beside an open window.
Step 3) Note furniture shops that have likely candidates for your living room. Jot down the number of the soi that it is near.
Step 4) At the Mall Bangkapi, get off bus, cross the street, and take a bus back to your starting point. Observe furniture shops on that side of Latprao.
Step 5) Return to the shop that had the sofa that was most appealing. Ask price. When you find it costs a fraction over $50.00, choose an end table as well.
Step 6) Give shop owner your address for delivery. Get in truck with delivery staff. Use up your entire Thai vocabulary well before reaching your apartment building. Relapse into what you hope is a congenial silence.
Step 7) Lead way to your apartment. Indicate where furniture should be placed. Give delivery staff some money and tell them to go drink beer. Be grateful that you can remember how to say that in Thai and even more grateful that they seem to understand you.
Step 8) Begin to plan your next shopping adventure while reclining on your new turquoise sofa.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Back in Bangkok

It's been seven years since I last lived in Bangkok, with a couple of two-week vacation stays tossed into that time period. Now that I've come back, in some ways it feels as though I had never left and in some ways as though I have never been here before.

When you live far from a place that once was your home, it freezes into place in your memory, and brief holidays don't give you enough time to revise that template.

Now that I'm back in my old neighborhood of Chokchai Ruammit, some things remain unchanged. The pick-up trucks that serve as local transportation still travel back and forth on the soi between the main roads of Ratchadapisek and Vibhawadee Rangsit. The food vendors still line the Vibhawadee end of the soi and are sparsely sprinkled on the more "rural" Ratchada end, which is where I live. Walking the soi is still a small adventure, with my rural portion being unadorned by any sort of sidewalk, only a narrow footpath. There are of course still soi dogs, although fewer than I remember, all of them friendly and afflicted with skin diseases, which keeps me from reciprocating their friendliness.

There is however a subway entrance a short distance from my apartment, which takes me to the cleanest, prettiest, most efficient underground transit that I've ever traveled and makes it easier for me to go to the central business district than it is to go to the more developed Vibhawadee end of my soi. I have wifi in my apartment and cable TV and my friend Nick's extra mobile phone which she has very generously lent to me in this period of transition. None of these things were part of my life in Seattle, which makes me wonder whether I've traveled to or from a developing country.

The other night while I waited to meet Nick at MBK Center, I was drenched in culture shock that was completely unexpected. In Seattle I lived in Chinatown and the streets of my neighborhood contained a diversity not easily found in the rest of that city. But at MBK I was surrounded by a crowd of people who represented the United Nations and enough languages to fill the Tower of Babel. Within a matter of minutes, I was so overwhelmed that I had to go home, take a shower, and go to bed. This is not the (largely homogeneous) city that I lived in seven years ago.

The differences between what I clung to in my memory and what is here in real life are invigorating ones and I'm happy to discover them--or will be as soon as I get up to full speed. As the catchphrase of the 90's used to say, "Amazing Thailand," and I rub my eyes and look again, trying not to gape, truly amazed.