Sunday, April 27, 2014

Outpost of an Ancient Empire

I freely admit that I'm a sloppy sentimentalist with a weakness for history--which is why I found myself close to tears at the Khmer New Year street fair yesterday. It was the faces of old people that did me in, as they watched little girls with plastic jasmine blossoms in their hair raise their bare feet in the same traditional Cambodian dance movements that are frozen in stone at Angkhorean temples. These were the faces of survivors, standing in the chilliness of a Seattle spring afternoon, listening to their language, eating their food.

There were a couple of taco trucks in evidence but they were being ignored, while the line was long at the booth that served a Khmer plate lunch. Boys stood at barbecues made from half a 50-gallon drum, grilling chicken that were served with noodles from the Cambodian deli down the block. People put their paper plates of food on the hoods of their cars and ate together, while nearby young men played takraw with a badminton shuttlecock. Onstage a Khmer ballad brought enthusiastic applause from the old people who sat on metal folding chairs to make an audience and a few of the elderly ladies began to dance. Later a young hip hop artist sent words in English and Khmer into a crowd of several hundred people, almost all Cambodian with a smattering of white people in the mix.

The King County bookmobile was there, and the usual social services booths, along with a couple who sold tee shirts and krama, and another stall with giant economy packs of false eyelashes, as well as wallhangings embellished generously with elephants. They were all ignored in favor of the plate lunch booth, where the line was too long for me.

I found rose and mango ice cream at a beer and pinball joint on the next block (viva Full Tilt!) and ate it while watching the hip hop guy. Ice cream wasn't an inspired choice on a cloudy day with a stiff breeze coming in off the Sound and even my ankles grew cold.

As I walked toward my bus stop, I passed a knot of middle-aged black ladies standing in front of a table, so many of them that I couldn't see what they might be selling. One of the oldest ones smiled at me. "What do you need? You need some water? You need food?"

She pulled a bottle of water from the table where I could vaguely see plates of food. "Here, have some," she said.

"I don't need anything, thank you, but will you take my donation?" and I handed her five dollars.

"Thank you," she said, "when people give us donations we give something back to them. You tell me what you need in your life, or maybe what somebody you know needs."

I thought for a moment and realized I had everything and so did my family. But there was a little girl I knew and I gave the lady that name. She called two other women to her side and they formed a small circle on the sidewalk with me. The lady grabbed my hand; her friend put her arm around my shoulders and the youngest of the three began to speak. To God.

I'm not religious but these women, praying in their own words, one with the message and the others backing it up in response, on a city sidewalk while embracing a stranger, got to my sloppy sentimental side. If this was what Christianity truly was, I'd be on that bandwagon.

They all hugged me when the prayer ended, I began to leave, and the older lady touched my arm. "Here," she said, "Take this. I have the feeling that you believe in the same thing we do."

"I believe in the goodness of people," I replied and she said, "That's right. That's it. What's your name?"

When I gave her my first name, she said "That's what we want," and she put a business card in my hand.

I kept it. Although I will never go there, it makes me feel good to know that in Burien, Pastor Delores Scott leads worship every Sunday at three at the Temple of Praise Apostolic Church. And at other times she's on the street, giving people what they need.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Bring Back the Quill Pen and India Ink, Please.

Less  than a month ago, I bought a new desktop computer, which for me is a big investment. I've used laptops and a netbook for ten years but  I was tired of replacing them every two years or so. I wanted something that  would be a workhorse, a  Percheron, not pretty but a plodder that wouldn't give up,

Right now I'm typing on my iPad mini. My Percheron has crashed once again, in the middle of a story that I prudently had saved the night before. With any luck, I'll be able to recover what I have written this morning, although luck isn't something I've had much of recently when it comes to this computer.

It  died and arose from the dead on Easter, which was only four days ago. The  process took most of the afternoon and I have a lunch date in another half hour so I'm delaying my call to HP support. At this point I'm ready to take the damned thing  back and make a more substantial investment in a Mac. Life is much too short for the joys of Microsoft updates for Windows 8.1.

Long ago I used a desktop that was so old that people laughed at it--but it worked. It was slow, it had few bells and whistles, but it was reliable. I'd give quite a bit to have that back in my iife, tiny monitor and all.

Meanwhile I am tapping this out on a miniscule keyboard in a font so small that I can only make out the red lines under my typos. It will take me longer to correct my mistakes than it has to write this . This isn't what I bargained for when I bought my desktop.

I was told that Windows 8.1 was  problematic but I had no idea that it would be unusable. Thanks a lot,  Bill Gates et al.. You suck.

Then UPS delivered the shoes I ordered online and waited over a week to receive--cheered me up, right? Wrong, so wrong...they had a clear plastic covering over the toes and the strap was floppy. What the hell has happened to Rockport? But fortunately they came via and so they were easy to return.

But thank heaven for friends--Lei Anne and I had a long, leisurely, and delicious lunch that transformed my day. After enjoying pasta, wine, cannoli with a lady who is one of the most delightful people I know, I felt cheered up beyond belief. It helped me get through a demoralizing phone call with HP, in which I learned that my very new computer has to go back for repairs and I'm back to using my netbook. And it gave me the strength to take the iphone that my sister gave me to AT&T for activation, where I learned the name of a new Indian restaurant that is really, really good. Saffron Grill, anyone?

So in the immortal words of G.K.Chesterton, "I think I will not hang myself today."

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Kind of a Drag

This was the opener for a song in the days of my youth (when I was so young I thought the singer was saying Canada Dry--is there still that brand of soda nowadays?). Now that I'm in my mid-sixties, I find myself silently singing this at unexpected moments--like yesterday when I fell in love at an AT&T outlet.

My sister gave me her old iphone and recommended AT&T, saying their customer service was exceptional. Since what I know about iphones could be tattooed on the belly of an ant, I took the phone and my vast pool of ignorance to the nearest AT&T, where I immediately knew I was floundering in the deep end.

As I wandered farther into the store, past round display tables that attracted customers far more tech-savvy than I, a young man greeted me from one of those tables. He stood there with a co-worker and nobody to talk to, so I joined them.

Quickly my neophyte status became blazingly obvious, but these guys were kind. They only displayed amusement when I told them I didn't download movies because I used an all-region DVD player. It was as though I'd admitted that my books were only available as illuminated manuscripts that were sold at monasteries.

They gave me a lot of information that I needed to think about before making a decision and one of them gave me his card. He looked surprised when I said I'd rather be contacted by email, and showed a flicker of relief that he wouldn't have to get in touch by sending smoke signals in my direction. "May I please have your email address?' he asked.

When I gave it to him, he smiled again. "That's a great address. Have you ever been to Bangkok?'

Nobody can be quite so condescending as a young man who is tall, handsome, and of Subcontinental descent--so I replied, "I lived there for eight years. My address is the title of my first book."

And we began to talk--about Bangkok, about Bombay, about travel. When I said goodbye, he put out his hand and held mine for a minute. "I'll see you to the door," he said.

There are few moments when i want to be young again, but when this man asked me if I had plans for my evening, I had to force myself not to respond with "That depends. Would you have dinner with me?" But my spring is a Seattle one, not  the Roman variety; my last name is Brown, not Stone; I have no real yearnings for a Tennessee Williams ending to any story of my life. Still it's reassuring to know that attraction can flare within me as quickly and as distractingly as it did forty years ago. Then I was hampered by lack of chutzpah; now I have almost as much of that as I do wrinkles. Kind of a drag...

Monday, April 21, 2014

Pie and the Sky, Mekong Style

It took me almost twenty years to get to Nakhon Phanom. When I finally reached this small northeastern city, I stared at jagged, irregularly shaped mountains silhouetted against the Laos sky on the other side of the Mekong River and wondered what had taken me so long.

Not on the tourist circuit, Nakhon Phanom is one of the most peaceful places I have ever found in Thailand. My hotel, grandly called the Windsor, was a perfectly preserved example of mid-20th century architecture, timeworn, a bit shabby, but still holding traces of elegance. It had rooms for as little as six dollars; I splurged and took the high-end thirteen dollar option with its long bank of windows facing the street. I planned to stay a while.

The Windsor offers free Nescafe but every morning I was sitting in a sidewalk café called Good Morning Vietnam, watching people take their children to school on motorcycles and listening to caged birds sing from a building across the street. Nakhon Phanom has attracted a large Vietnamese population throughout its history and the young woman who made my coffee was the daughter of people born in Vietnam. The blue building with its melodic birds hanging from its curved front looked like photos of buildings in Hanoi, a style that was found all over this Thai city.

The ubiquitous concrete shophouses that remain a drab and mottled grey in most of Thailand were painted in bright and imaginative colors here. Every block contained several dashes of brilliant hues, sometimes combined in one building. Color and coffee, both done well—Nakhon Phanom was obviously meant for me, and I extended my stay for two weeks. And that was before I met Khun Noi, when I began to realize there were layers to this city that were even more dazzling than what initially came to my attention.

Opposite the city’s street market were shophouses, most of them open in the front and selling everything from children’s bicycles to mango and sticky rice. In the middle of them was a storefront window with mannequins and one of the mannequins was wearing a dashing pair of lace-up, calf-high, red plaid boots.

This was an unanticipated jolt of chic that was impossible to ignore. I pushed on the door of the shop; it was unlocked. There I was in a room filled with women’s clothing, all alone.

 “Are you open? Hello?” I called in the direction of the dark room that lay beyond an archway. Nobody answered.

The clothing was all western, much of it vintage, on neatly categorized racks—blouses, skirts, dresses, ballgowns. Sprinkled about on dressmaker forms were confections that looked as though they were meant for tiny ballerinas, short tulle skirts with strapless bodices and a large tulle flower near the right shoulder. Each was a different color—blue, sea green, and pink, of course and each might have fit me when I was ten. And then there were those boots—I wanted them. If not for me, I knew the perfect ten-year-old who would get them as a present.

As I stood and stared, a grumble emerged from the back room and out came a shirtless man wearing a sarong. His hair was tousled and he obviously had been taking a nap. He shrugged off my apologies and asked me if I liked his clothes. “No,” he told me, “the plaid boots aren’t for sale. I have only one pair; they’re from Japan for cosplay. I bought them at the Cambodian market in Aranyaprathet. It’s where I find everything here.”

“Do women in Nakhon Phanom buy your clothes?” I asked him, and he nodded. Suddenly this quiet city took on a new dimension of sophistication that I would never have guessed from what I saw on the street every day.

Khun Noi spoke no English and my Thai skills are minimal, but he was a man fluent in style and I was besotted with the clothing that he had discovered. He let me roam around the back room where the walls were lined with shelves of shoes; the pride of his collection was a pair of Christian Louboutin six-inch shocking pink platform heels. When I moaned softly, he showed me the pair he had found for himself, black canvas hightops covered in silver spikes with the signature red soles.

I left with nothing but I was haunted by a scarlet chiffon accordion pleated skirt, its double hem rimmed with thick gold thread. It had an elastic waist which I normally detest but in this country that meant it could be worn by me. It was twenty-three dollars and Khun Noi wouldn’t budge on the price. He knew I’d be back, and later in the afternoon there I was.

This time his girlfriend was there, an exquisite young woman who spoke English and loved the clothes even more than I, since they all would easily fit her. While I saw the shop as a kind of museum, for her it was a walk-in closet. We chattered happily while Khun Noi meticulously ironed every pleat of my new skirt; he insisted upon that, and wrapped it carefully in tissue paper before handing it over.

Khun Noi wasn’t the only one in Nakhon Phanom to scour the market at Arayanprathet for used clothing. The flat streets were dotted with stalls of clothes but after his shop, everything else looked tired and uninspired. I was more attracted to the hardware street, where glass bricks in different patterns were framed as a display and small objects that looked like an array of costume jewelry turned out to be low tech burglar alarms to hang on a doorknob.

The only flaw I found were the local taxi drivers. “Taxi” is a misleading term because there are none in Nakhon Phanom. To get around town, tuktuk drivers had the monopoly, in oversized versions of the Bangkok species which here are known as Skylabs. My first encounter was with an enterprising soul who demanded around three dollars for a quick trip along the river. Since I’d traveled that morning to reach his city from a spot in another province and paid about 2.50 for a seat in an air-conditioned van, this seemed exorbitant. Besides I like to walk. Soon every Skylab driver in town had seen me strolling miles beyond my hotel and after the first week they began to offer me the local price of a bit over one dollar.

Then came the day that I went out of the city, to a museum that was within the Vietnamese community, a house and garden that had once been the habitation of Ho Chi Minh. I persuaded a Skylab driver to take me and bring me back, promising to pay him very well indeed. The trip seemed to take the driver far beyond his depth; I was the one who had to ask for directions once we passed through the elaborate gates to the Vietnamese village, and when he saw I was planning to actually enter Uncle Ho’s home, the man looked thoroughly confused. Although I asked him to wait for me, the instant I walked through the museum gate, I saw the Skylab putt slowly down the road in the direction from which we had come. And when I finally came back out, there was nobody waiting for me.

When I arrived back at my hotel at last, there was the Skylab driver. “You didn’t wait,” I said and he replied cheerfully, “I didn’t want to.”

Fortunately, walking is the best way to explore the city and every day I headed for the Mekong which is faced by an array of half a dozen temples, gleaming to match the sparkle of sun on the water. My favorite had a collection of chickens roaming its grounds, co-existing happily with several placid dogs. At night, this temple’s buildings were illuminated, glowing golden under a few well-placed spotlights. Sitting on a bench under a small cluster of trees to enjoy the sight, I heard something heavy rustle above my head. I was quickly on my feet, looking for a monitor lizard, which are huge and sometimes aggressive. Instead I saw the chickens roosting in the branches above, settling in for the night.

The Mekong has become an integral part of the daily life of Nakhon Phanom. A long concrete promenade runs for miles along the banks of the river; parts of the walkway are shaded by old trees and others are sprinkled with playgrounds for children and exercise equipment for adults. Old villas and an elaborate cathedral anchor one end of the promenade; a large park stretches at the other end. Every night a small boat gives a river tour that drifts down the Thai side of the Mekong, up along Laos, and then back across to Nakhon Phanom. It leaves at twilight and encompasses a sunset for the grand sum of under two dollars, a Mekong Happy Hour complete with cans of cold Beer Lao. I was on board almost every evening.

But perhaps the most distinctive thing about this quiet provincial city is that it’s one of the few in Thailand that serves slices of apple pie.

A short distance beyond the park at the promenade’s end is a bright blue house. A sign announces that this is Ali Blah Blah Bistro and there are usually people sitting at tables on the inviting veranda, chatting and eating. Inside, the bistro is bright and cool, with plush sofas and comfortable chairs and a pastry case that nobody would expect to find anywhere outside of Bangkok—or perhaps Seattle.

This isn’t too surprising, because the woman who makes the pastry and presides over Ali Blah Blah lived in Seattle for years. Beau Suwannapruke worked at Café Paloma in Pioneer Square. She has studied chocolate making in Switzerland and the art of pastry in France. After the birth of her son, Ali, she began to think of bringing him up in her hometown, on the banks of the Mekong. Now they both live in Nakhon Phanom, with Ali Blah Blah Bistro at the roadside edge of the riverside property that belongs to Beau’s parents.

Ali Blah Blah is a family enterprise. Beau is the head and heart of the business, but a cousin makes coffee drinks in the afternoon, her mother is often at a corner table shaping tray after tray of crisp, buttery, and addictive cookies, and an aunt takes care of Ali during the day. Other aunts bring feasts of grilled chicken and papaya salad and sticky rice to the veranda and persuade Beau to take a break from the kitchen. Although the pastry is Western, the business itself is very Thai.

Beau often uses food grown in her family’s yard for her desserts but the recent addition of multinational superstores—the Dutch-based Makro, Britain’s Tesco, and Big C from France’s Carrefour—expanded her range of ingredients. Although she buys local fruit at Nakhon Phanom’s street market, a recent purchase made at a superstore led her to the creation of Cape gooseberry apple pie.

Pie is new to Thai palates but the flavor combination of sour-sweet is traditionally Thai and Beau found a winning blend with apples and gooseberries. The proof of her success is that other coffee shops are beginning to offer pie by the slice, so Beau is ready to move on to new horizons. Crepes made to order, both sweet and savory; an occasional pasta dish—“Perhaps,” she says, “we’ll serve meals and become a real bistro.”

Meanwhile her strawberry tarts, her chocolates, her cakes frosted with the bright, clear flavor of pandanus or mango, and her artfully constructed pies continue to attract a growing local clientele and foreign travelers who search for good coffee, an unexpected treat, and a conversation with Beau Suwannapruke. Just one of the many delightful surprises that wait without fanfare in Nakhon Phanom—next time I’m there, I just might not ever leave.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Bring It On

When I was in my twenties, my mother told me about a woman she had met in San Francisco who was in her fifties and still wore jeans. This shocked, delighted, and intrigued me, all at the same time—fifty was old. Fifty was middle-aged spread. Fifty was stodgy. Fifty wore jeans?

Thirty years later, when I was in my fifties and still a slender smoker, I wore jeans that were the cast-offs of a willowy boy who was a bookstore colleague. When I stopped smoking and gained weight, I gave those jeans away and bought others. It’s never occurred to me to stop wearing them, except in Thailand where the heat makes them uncomfortable.

This is not the old age that I envisioned when I was in my twenties. It’s much, much better than that.

Soon after I turned sixty-five at the end of last year, I had lunch with a friend who mentioned the well-worn perception that time moved more rapidly with age. In a burst of the idiot’s satori for which I’m sometimes noted, I replied, “Yes. It’s because that’s when we’re at our happiest.”

He looked surprised and I had to back up the statement that had come thoughtlessly but quite certainly to mind. As we begin to age, we have the time to do all the things that responsibilities constrained us from doing when we were young, busy with children, jobs, husbands or lovers. Appearance took time—buying make-up, dressing for what the world expected of us, cooking regular meals. As we get older, every day unfolds like a birthday when we can usually do pretty much anything we want. There’s time for writing or painting or sculpting or photography, unbroken, uninterrupted time. If we’re still in our pyjamas, unkempt and unshowered at the end of a day of exploring what we can do, nobody will know except perhaps the UPS man. And it will have been a very good day.

And if we choose to end it with salted caramel ice cream and a glass or two of Pinot Noir, we can. Stay up until 4 am watching episodes of The Wire or reading Gone Girl from cover-to-cover in one sitting? No problem. 

This was undreamed of bliss when I was a young mother in my twenties.

A magazine (oh all right—it was More, but I do read the New Yorker and the Atlantic too) recently had a list of statistics about various stages in a woman’s life. Although a Harris Poll found that women are at the perfect age, according to women from the ages of 18-36, when they are 38, they are happiest, says Social Indicators Research, at 74.

Nine years to go—and I’m pretty damned happy right now. The sun’s out, my cold is going away, and waiting for me in my bedroom is a pair of brand new, completely perfect jeans.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Reclaiming My Turf

When I came home after a 10-week trip, my apartment was warm and clean and bright, with the feeling of fullness that comes from being inhabited. I was met at the door by the man who had lived in it while I was gone and who left soon after I arrived. With his departure, suddenly my place felt like a hotel room, no longer someone else’s but not mine either.

My books were on their shelves, the kitchen still had glasses and plates in their accustomed spots, the towels were the colors I had chosen, but it all felt weirdly unfamiliar. Although in some ways I felt as though I’d never left, the strongest sense of place that came to me was that I was just a temporary tenant who needed to be careful of the furnishings and appurtenances because they really belonged to somebody else.

This gave my first couple of weeks back a hollowness. The comfort of a furnished apartment was delightful, reading on a sofa instead of on a narrow bed, propped up by lumpy pillows, waking up in a bedroom and moving into another room for coffee, and having enough coat hangers was pure luxury after spending 80 days in the surroundings of a traveler. But this all felt tenuous, as though I were the apartment-sitter and my friend who had lived here in my absence would be back to claim his turf.

I unpacked my suitcases but I didn’t unpack my apartment. I had cleared out spaces for my friend to use while he was here and there was a closet carelessly jammed full of a random collection of stuff. When I peered into it, it looked like the private domain of a hoarder and I quickly closed the door.

There were things I had tucked away into spots that I couldn’t remember now, like my library card. For some reason that I couldn’t identify, I was reluctant to look for it.

Into my third week of this unsettling form of jet lag, I was slapped hard by a cold and my life shrunk to the size of a Kleenex box. Nothing was interesting, not the books I was longing to read, or the movies that had been sent by Netflix, or the beginning of baseball season. I sat and blew my nose and drank coffee that tasted so flavorless that it might just as well have been Nescafe. But when it finally ebbed away, I was back in full possession of my space and the things that filled it.

Things I’d been given, things I had chosen, things I touched and used every day had regained the resonance of my history. I’m not a domestic woman and through the years I’ve given away several households full of furniture and possessions, paring my life down to two suitcases over and over again. I know that feeling of impermanence, of temporary tenancy, is all too real, on many levels. And yet the colors of the things that fill my apartment, the memories that stand behind them, give my daily life a dimension that it lacks when I travel. I suppose I might as well call it home.