Monday, June 22, 2009

Paris in Seattle

When my children were small, occasionally we would set off on the Great Hamburger Quest. Because we lived in Alaska at the time, this usually involved long car rides to places we had never been to before, with varying results. Sometimes the hamburger patty was of the pre-made industrial variety, sometimes it was quite clearly made from moosemeat (dry with a distinctive flavor), and sometimes it was just right with the bun, the cheese and the burger all carefully chosen and cooked to order.

Hamburgers are the quintessential American food and they can be wonderful--or completely lackluster--which is why I am still eager to embark upon the Great Hamburger Quest. But when my sons and I recently boarded the #5 bus in Seattle to explore the Greenwood neighborhood, I had no idea what our destination and ultimate goal really was. But my son Matthew did.

We sauntered down Greenwood Avenue, examining the changes that had taken place in the 20+ years since it had been our first Seattle neighborhood. Back in the '80s it was still a suburb of Ballard, very Scandinavian, very much frozen in time, very late 1950s. Now it is a cornucopia of different ethnicities, with places like the Baranof still accommodating aging Vikings of the old school.

Suddenly Matt veered off into a small, dimly lit place called the Gainsbourg, where we sat at a table with a lamp that looked a lot like a zebra's leg and hoof. When I reached out to touch it, the waitress was there to assure me that it was indeed real--as was the pressed-tin ceiling, I realized, and the solid, hardwood bar. "Old neighborhood-quaint," I thought--but then we ordered coffee.

"French press?," the waitress asked, "Large pot?" And then brought us a pot of wonderfully brewed, strong, thoroughly delicious caffeine, which filled our cups more than once and stayed hot throughout our visit.

Which was a leisurely one. The Gainsbourg is that kind of place--with black-and-white photos of Serge and his women on the walls and a jukebox with everything I have ever loved and much, much more--a complete music history course and sheer pleasure. It has creative cocktails and a fabulous beer selection, which I have yet to sample--I was too enchanted by their coffee to stray into other drink possibilities.

However what makes the Gainsbourg linger in my memory is---the Gainsbourger, which for me forever ended the Great Hamburger Quest. The meat is truly beef--or lamb if you prefer--the roll is truly a chunk of bread and the fried onions are a tiny bit of heaven. All of it comes together in an explosion of taste--and then there are the frites...

It was quite probably the best meal of my life, sitting with Matt and Nick, listening to music I'd never heard before with Saturday morning cartoons projected silently on the wall behind us, drinking coffee as good as anything I've had in Laos, which up till now was my caffeine benchmark, and savoring the clearcut winner of the Great Hamburger Quest. If I am good in this life, I will be allowed this every day in heaven--the Gainsbourg on Greenwood with Matthew and Nicholas.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Are Readings a Dead Language?

When you write a book and send it out into the world, your relationship with it becomes very removed. If you're lucky, a review or two appears in print, and there may be some blogger attention. Sales figures come and go and your mother assures you that your book is wonderful.

If you are very, very fortunate, your publisher has made your words into a volume that is beautiful, with a cover that makes your heart soar each time you look at it. It's very much like realizing that your infant child is pleasant to look at, as well as being a possessor of the proper number of ears and toenails--a mixture of relief and delight. But still...

You know how you feel when you read another person's book--the visceral reaction of pleasure or surprise or outrage or disgust--a reaction that you have always regarded as a purely private one, until now. Now you long to be in the room as someone reads your words, invisibly witnessing this private act, a voyeur of the worst kind.

Then a bookstore agrees to let you read to an audience of their customers--people who have read your book, or are curious about it, or who wandered in with nothing better to do than to listen to you. Nervously you walk up to the podium, feel a thrill of relief that the microphone is at the right level for you and is working properly, say something that you pray is coherent, and begin to read.

And you realize this is what you have longed to do--to connect with your readers directly, to tell them a story and see their reaction to your words. As you read and feel a current between yourself and your listeners, you are amazed by an overwhelming sense of joy that is very similar to the euphoria you felt after giving birth to yor children. It's the best high in the world, and while you answer questions and sign copies of your book, you realize that if not for independent bookstores like Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company or Bainbridge Island's Eagle Harbor Books, this particular relationship between reader and writer would never come into being. You pray that these stores and others like them will always be in place, creating this special link between booklovers, and this extraordinary feeling that comes only when words come to life in a reading room.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


In Bangkok it's almost 1 a.m. In Seattle it's almost 11 a.m. yesterday. Still on Seattle time, my mind is wide awake, buzzing with thoughts and plans for the day that won't begin here for another five hours.

Pico Iyer, a man who has spent huge amounts of his life perfecting the art of continental drift, urges his readers to explore jet lag, to accept it as the legal drug that it is, and to relish the opportunity it gives to see our lives differently. The cool, dark silence of my neighborhood as it passes through midnight is an unexpected treat, and in it my thoughts slow down, freed from the goldfish- darting that daylight brings.

During one return to Bangkok, many years ago, I woke up rested and ravenous, heard noises downstairs and knew that my housemates were up early, preparing for the day. I showered, dressed, and went down in search of coffee, finding instead my friend Scooter on the sofa sleepily watching tv, with the hands of the living room clock at 2 a.m.

This is a temporary state of being and I like it. I like the enforced relaxation of airplanes and being rocked into a weird quasi-sleep by light turbulence. I am particularly fond of arriving in Bangkok at night and walking out of the airport's artificial chill and glaring light into deep warm darkness.

What is not pleasurable is standing in line at the airport of one city that has claimed me, with hours to go before I resume my other life in Bangkok. All of the reasons why I have spent so many years in Seattle are at the front of my mind after spending wonderful time with my family and my friends, and the reasons why I am now in Bangkok are so deeply obscured that when a Thai friend asked me what I ate in her country, I was unable to name meals that I ask for every day of my life in Thailand.

Feeling homeless as I leave one home for another, I think of leaving the line of travelers, walking back into my old Northwest life of people I love, finding a bookstore job, setting up housekeeping once more in a Chinatown apartment. At this point, my home in Bangkok feels as hazy as these vague possibilities, and the only real and fixed point for me is the knowledge that I am leaving people who are so much part of me that I feel as though I'm going through amputation. Yet there is that airticket...

So I pass through the line, say goodbye to the two men I love most, buy gum and water and magazines, get on the plane, and bite the inside of my cheek hard to keep from crying. Fifteen hours later, I walk to a taxi that will take me to my bed, and the thick moist warmth of Bangkok wraps around me like a blanket and welcomes me back.