I think the other kids had already lost interest by the time I found myself staring at a lifeless frog with an ice cube on its belly. That image is still very clear to me. The girl with the fuzzy brown hair and the waffle-soled shoes had put it there, an older kid, one of “the babysitters”. Older kids were usually scary or boring, which is probably why I was the only one left to see this miracle. I was always the one who wanted to know things, especially weird ones, and since this girl had learnt about frogs being cold blooded at school, and deduced that that meant ice would give a dead frog life, I was not going to miss it. Sadly, here is where the memory ends. I just can’t remember if the frog came back to life or not. I must have either been pulled away by some other fascinating endeavour such as playing Star Wars on bicycles, or just walked away thinking it might not work and I didn’t want to know. I remember really, really wanting it to work. Does it work? Wait, don’t tell me.
In the morning, before anything else such as opening my eyes properly, I have a cup of tea. If I were a frog, this would be my ice. I can’t do anything without it. My body is so used to it that if I don’t have tea for some reason, I just stumble round until I realise what is wrong and then put the kettle on to rectify the situation. I don’t need coffee. Coffee is good, but it would put me from 0-100 in 10 seconds, and then I’d crash. Coffee is for later and for special occasions like sitting in cafes with friends. I need gentle tea full of sciency things like catechins and antioxidants. Black tea, freshly boiled water, milk. Americans call this “with cream”. “Cream and sugar?” is the collocated question you are asked in an American restaurant. I love watching English people hear this question for the first time because I can see the internal struggle on their faces when, horrified that someone would put cream in their tea, they politely reply, “With milk, please” . Little do they know it doesn’t really mean cream, it means milk or that strange little animal, half and half. How can you have half cream and half milk if milk IS cream with some of the cream taken out? At which point do you call it milk? Anyway, this is how I have my tea. In the morning, there is no other way.
When my brother and I were little, my family went to Walt Disney World. We drove down to Florida where, we believed, the local kids did not have to go to school. I mean, you could see them all at Disney World so obviously they didn’t have school*. We felt a lot of freedom there because our parents let us run around for hours as long as we “stayed together”. We rode favourite rides over and over and, for my brother, this meant Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I am quite certain that they don’t have that ride anymore because a) it wasn’t sophisticated enough to hold the attention of the kids of today and b) it was based on the Wind in the Willows, a book, with pages and a cover and book smell. I don’t know how many kids read this type of book anymore. I didn’t much care for the ride as there was a scary part at the end, but do you know what my one memory is? There were a bunch of frogs sitting on a picnic blanket…drinking tea!
We can just amble along down here in our little bubble for ages before suddenly being reminded how some of the branches we sit on belong to trees planted in other countries. Big bookshops are popular places. The automatic doors continually suck up power as they are kept from resting. The cafes located inside, while their employees grumble when they have to put away abandoned magazines and books, turn a huge profit all based on people trying to escape main street stress for an hour or so with a sub-standard coffee and a headline that promises 5 Ways to Change the Look of Your Kitchen (Oh,we love our D.I.Y.* in N.Z, eh?). English language students meet to look at Vogue and speak Korean. Or back in the main shop, anti-social, ruffle headed teenagers sit on the floor in front of the manga while amateur cooks secrectly scribble recipes down out of cookery books. Kids hug the Gruffalo toy as they listen to someone else’s Mum read a story while sitting on too tiny a chair for an adult. And poseurs pretend to be reading poetry while scanning the area for goth girls who are also looking for supposed poetry-reading cool boys. Neither of them will actually make a move and talk to the other one before they need to get home for tea.
All of this exists on a tenuous branch. This is not evident at all, until the branch is suddenly floating in the air, no longer attached to a trunk. Apparently the trunk is in Australia. The news came out a couple of weeks ago that Borders and our own Whitcoulls, which turns out to be in the same group, are in trouble. Apparently Australians, like Americans and the British, buy most of their books online now and ‘real life’ bookshops can not keep up with how cheap everything has become. That is certainly not the case here in New Zealand.
New Zealanders, as any traveller to these islands will tell you, pay a ridiculous amount for the printed word. We’ve always been unhappy about this, but what can we do? We like books and we don’t have Amazon, so we just carry on. Books are still special and people still go to libraries in droves. It’s probably what some people in other nations would call a bit “backward”. That’s OK.
The only problem (apart from us having been ripped off for so many years with overpriced books) is that now the bubble has burst, the branches are shaking, and the big hangouts for students and pseudo-intellectuals will soon disappear. Is there a silver lining, I wonder?
So, the masses will not have their usual place to hang out. We do have some of the best cafes in the Southern Hemisphere and people will soon disperse to relevant and suitable java-huts. But I don’t believe for a second that real booklovers, or even temples for booklovers will disappear. True, branches can’t just hover in the air without a trunk to hold them up. But there are seedlings under this falling tree. I think it’s time for all those little independent bookshops we have, and there are some fantastic ones, to shine. They are full of knowledgeable, book-loving people who want to help you, occasional uncomfortable chairs from second-hand shops, and cats. They’ve been fighting the good fight for decades against big business. I hope that this is their time. Perhaps they will even have to put in automatic doors. God, I hope not. Imagine the number of cat tails that would get caught.
*D.I.Y. means “Do it yourself” and is the NZ/Oz/UK phrase for home improvement that you do, well…by yourself, without hiring someone else to do it.
Apart from having one German-speaking relative and hearing the French versions of the skits on Sesame Street*, one of my earliest foreign language experiences was at a friend’s birthday party. I must’ve been around 9 or 10 years old and something was already drawing me to the few children in my, mainly white, school who were of non-European origin. Most of the time we all ate the school lunches as, back then, they were still cheaper than bringing your own and were made with real ingredients. But, on the occasions that Zahra brought her lunch from home I was fascinated. I guess we weren’t old enough for other kids to start teasing her for being different like they do in middle school because she had all these strange orange and yellow foods that she ate with what I thought at first were pancakes. Turned out they were roti. It was all very matter-of-fact to her. “You don’t eat bread at home?” I thought bread came in slices at that juncture in my life, but I was keen to try it. It tasted nothing like pancakes.
When Zahra came to school one day with a stack of small envelopes, I couldn’t wait to find out what they were for. I was one of the lucky recipients, but I managed to wait until I got home to open it. I guess it is a ‘kid thing’, to wait until one of the authority figures in your life looks at any correspondence. Since that’s what happens with report cards and field trip permission slips, why would it be any different for other mysterious envelopes?
A birthday party invitation.
I was dropped off at the address on the invitation and invited inside. While I was busy trying to decipher food smells and interpret various decorations, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t got past the front entryway. My eyes focused on an elderly woman, hair tied back in a long grey plait, right in front of me saying, “Go on. Get your shoes off so you can go and play with the other children.” A shoes-off house. I was, no doubt, wearing boots and a long dress as that was what I thought the phrase dressing up meant back then so I probably struggled a bit before I was lead to the basement stairway. I had only seen a bunch of adults rushing around by this point so I was getting pretty nervous that there weren’t even any other kids there. I sort of stalled at the top of the stairs until the woman next to me switched from Hindi to English and said, “Go down! They are all there.” What a relief it was when I got to the bottom and found that yes, in fact, they were “all there”. Actually, there were kids running amok all over the basement. I remember scanning to see if there was anyone I knew when the lights flickered and all the kids screamed.
In through a side door that I hadn’t noticed earlier entered a group of adults carrying big trays of something. I was wondering if it was going to be the bread that Zahra brought to school, but when they set it down on the tables I noticed it was pizza. Pizza?! Well, it looked and smelled, like pizza but it wasn’t round. I should set the record straight in that my parents did actually cook other real food, but pizza came frozen from the supermarket. That’s just how it was in Northville, Michigan before Dominoes had arrived on the scene. But this. They made this. By hand. Not having been on the Earth for a decade yet, this was very exotic to me. I didn’t know you could just make pizza from scratch like that. I thought it was a supermarket thing, like Twinkies. And I had certainly never had square pizza. I still remember how delicious it was.
The pizza episode was followed by more running around until, once again, the lights went out and all the kids screamed. The same group of women in their saris stood in the shadows until someone managed to get a match to light all of the candles on Zahra’s birthday cake and we all began to sing the Happy Birthday song. By the time we finished, Zahra’s grandmother was sitting next to me and she said, “Come on! The second verse!” and all the Indians in the room chimed in for the Hindi version. I felt so nervous for not knowing the words that I tried to pretend I was singing it. I’m sure my face went bright red when the grandmother said, “Oh, good girl. You know the Hindi part.”
*Whereas Sesame Street in other parts of the States would switch back and forth between Spanish and English, in Michigan they used to have French instead of Spanish supposedly because of the proximity to Quebec. I wonder if anyone else remembers this.
I have a very good friend whom I knew for a few of the most exciting years of my life. He was just discovering who he was, as we all were in those days, and I love the fact that he is living his true life now. However, I lost touch with this friend quite a few years ago. Many years ago. I’ve always wondered what he was doing and what his life had become. And then about 6 or 7 years ago I managed to get in touch again through a mutual friend. I was so happy because I found out about quite a few nice things that had occurred in his life. Sadly, he was about to leave his job. The email address I had for him was through his work and so I knew he would no longer be using it. He said he would be in touch as soon as he got his own email address set up. This didn’t strike me as odd because I know plenty of people who lead their lives without using the internet on a daily basis. And back then, it wasn’t as common for everyone to have multiple email addresses, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. I just hoped for the best. I never heard from him again.
In our brief email exchange, one of the things he said to me was that the reason he hasn’t been in touch was because he was jealous. I should clarify that this is not an ex-boyfriend. He was apparently jealous of my life. I just think this is amazing. He has made up a scenario based on the few facts he still knows about me that has led him to believe that my life is a fairytale. Yes, I have travelled a lot, but that is not all that happens in my life. I feel a little bit angry, but mostly sad about this. He has no idea about the difficult things I’ve been through. He has just chosen some random ‘facts’ and gleaned the rest, and then used that non-reality as a basis for discontinuing the friendship.
But it makes me think. Do I do this? I must do. It seems quite common. There are certainly people I feel jealousy towards. And, I have to admit, there have been times when I’ve avoided those people because I didn’t feel I had anything more to offer than what they already have. But, eventually you see things. You start to see that the things you are jealous of are only on the very surface of their being. Over time, these things change or fade and you begin to see more of the real person. If you stick with these people, you find out that they are struggling in life just as you are and we all need allies. I wish my friend could see this, but if nothing else he has left me with the ability to weigh up my trivial jealousies before they cause me to lose something that could be really important. Well, at least I try.
Why haven’t we got a word for this in English? Memories, feelings, strong emotions are washing in so quickly it’s overwhelming. I could almost be knocked over by the intensity. This one little kaffir lime leaf that fell off as I was planting up the tree looks like any other leaf. I would expect it to smell green, like a green leaf. But it doesn’t. It smells of putrid but delicious durian and sweating at 7am over a noodle soup breakfast from a one-table stall. It smells of trying hard to get the tones right so I can get salt in my lime juice rather than plain and sickly sweet like they serve to farangs. Here in my head I am eating kaeng kiao wan kung and realising that I’m looking at a cooked grasshopper that was unfortunate enough to sit on the wrong sprig of holy basil, and then suddenly not feeling hungry anymore.
Another sniff. A conversation about how to avoid deadly centipedes and snakes on an island with no electricity. I smell salty air that suddenly sparkles as an entire school of silver wrigglers lands in our little boat on the confluence of the Mae Nam Chan and the Andaman. The small size of this fisherman’s craft suddenly seems woefully inadequate for this journey. Nervousness. A bus hurtling down a potholed road, skidding past another bus smashed and smoking. I no longer feel the heat in these situations as I’m focusing on being alive in the place we are headed to. Making life-preserving plans for dinner.
I fold the leaf until it cracks and inhale. Yet another Thai woman is asking me, “Eeeeeeeeeeg, Oh-kaaaaaaaay?” when I order the vegetarian option. They use the same phrase all over the country to make sure you are not vegan. I love the care in their voices and the lesson that your choice wasn’t available if it doesn’t show up at your table after half an hour. They just didn’t want to say, “No” to you because it’s offensive. Next time I’ll know.
Citrus, lemon, lime, green, intoxicating. This scent taught me that smiling when you are angry can get you very much further than showing your dismay. That I should never “break the egg” inappropriately and let the first trade of the day be an honest one so nobody loses face. Try not to stare as the stall is beautifully blessed by touching it with the money. The scent of this leaf almost makes me want to cry when it reminds me of this. I always suspected green things could cause emotion. This must be how.
I’ve planted this tree so I can remember the place that has formed so much of my being. All the years of to-ing and fro-ing through Thailand and all the lessons I’ve learnt. Much of that was in my 20s, when you think you know who you are and later you find out how utterly and tragically clueless you were. And later, speaking with major mistakes, laughing with the other khanom jin customers as we share from the giant basket of herbs, building houses in the countryside and learning by walking in markets and smelling things like shrimp paste and lime leaves. I owe a great deal to Thailand.
Thailand doesn’t know this, of course. Thailand is just a country. How can a country know how it has affected someone? How can a country know that when someone far away on an island in the Pacific catches the scent of a kaffir lime leaf it will cause them to rehash experiences and analyse what they mean? It doesn’t matter really. Only to me. So, I’m planting this tree that has leaves full of Thailand.
This photo is a couple of years old now, but I’ve been thinking about the friends we had back in Japan quite a bit recently. I think it is wonderful how you can float around on the globe and then settle down for a while, look up, and there are people just like you. Amazing, amazing. What are the chances? Why does this happen? Maybe you have to be open to it in some way. Or maybe there’s some boring reason like the fact that they are doing something similar to what you’ve chosen, so you think alike.
This was a moment out of a long weekend we spent at our friends’ cabin in the mountains. It is known as the “Foreigners’ Village” by locals because there have been long-term expat summer homes here for generations. There are Japanese who come as well, but the basic conditions only appeal to very few people. The history is amazing and every simple little cabin has its own story. One cabin is the place where we spent wonderful nights discussing books, listening to music (some on LPs!) creating menus and making delectable dishes, trying to outdo each other and then waking late the next day from too much wine. If it weren’t for our ages, you’d think it some scene out of the life of an undergraduate. Eventually we’d make it down to the local sento for a bath.
I’m convinced someday that I’ll be able to collect all these wonderful people and get them to move to one place so we can live like this all the time. But I know that will never happen because we are all transient by nature. We can’t stop forever. That’s what makes us alike. But wouldn’t that be cool?
As soon as I hear the “Where…” , anxiety rushes in. I’ve learned from experience that not having the ‘right ‘answer creates problems. People don’t want you to be ‘interesting’ or ‘weird’. They want to be able to file you in the folders of their mind discreetly and easily so they have a point of reference from which to judge your actions. People love to judge on place.
I first opened my eyes in a place with beaches, warmth, and never-ending swamps. Water fell from the sky in half-day, seasonal downpours. Like clockwork, heat turns to rain making everything steamy and unbearable save for the scent of Cuban beans simmering that hint at the pleasures in life to come. Home? Within a year my family headed to the cold northern state of Michigan.
The water here falls from the sky in snowflakes and it makes for great fun sliding down hills with my brother in those precious moments when sibling rivalry hasn’t taken over. Detroit has urban things like the Henry Ford museum where my classmates and I saw the chair that President Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot.
“Miss Jones, is that his blood?”
“No, it’s the pomade they used to put in their hair.”
“Sam, what’s pomade?”
“I dunno. I think it’s blood.”
“Yeah, me too!”
Michigan also meant family as once every couple of months my Mum bundled us into the car for the three hour journey “up north” to see relatives and, from my perspective, go to the lake. Lake Huron was a wonderland in those days with giant plaster animals on the beach containing slides and swings and firemen’s poles. There were precious Petosky stones to search for which I didn’t recognise as fosilised coral until I was in high school. But the lake was best in winter. In the daytime people would ice skate along the shore and at night it became a game to spot the glow of the ice fishermen’s lights in the little temporary shelters.
We also explored the woods which were full of exciting things like bear poo and half-eaten prey of some bird or animal. We never played cowboys and Indians…only Indians. We really wanted to believe that we could live like native people and survive in the wild, but in reality we were fortified by pierogies and potato salad (family recipe)until the sun went down and adults called us in.
After those days we lived in the tornado alley towns of Omaha and Kansas City. Scary days when the sky went black, sirens went off, and we hid in the basement with Mum and Dad listening for the telltale train sound. It wasn’t like this in Little House on the Prairie. But there were blizzards which seemed fun for children, but not for my parents who busied themselves stocking up the survival box as they did the hurricane box in southern Florida. Same cans of Spam and stew for different potential disasters.
And there were other homes in other states every two years on average. By 18, the pattern had set and I carried on to the UK, Vietnam, Japan and New Zealand after that. Of course, Lake Huron doesn’t freeze anymore and our house in Miami is long gone thanks to a hurricane. Sometimes I’m surprised at how much focus there is on place when defining home. Home is much more than place to me.
1. I am old. I was looking around and thinking that this is a very old crowd. I was looking at the band and thinking how they’d got old (Even older than me, of course. Sorry Pixies.), but probably do yoga and eat healthy food in an effort to maintain their youthfulness like many of us. Then I realised that the crowd was probably mostly my age. Damn!
2. I sat in the seats. In the old days I would’ve made sure that I queued, overnight with a sleeping bag in the rain if necessary, to get tickets for the floor so I could be in the mosh. But it didn’t even occur to me to do that this time. Actually, a friend was the first one to find out about the tour and kindly offered to organise the tickets online. Good on her too, because this was about four months ago. I’ve never been that organised.
3. I find it hard to be at a gig and sit still. I never understood the restraint it would take people to sit and watch a gig nicely in a seat. But then, I’ve always been a bit of a dancer. However, being up in the stands, it does feed the vertigo if you dance with too much movement, so I did a sort of half-dance thing so I could at least feel the music. The women in front of me were quite drunk on glowing cocktails, however, and were unrestrained by the vertigo monster.
4. I’m prone to bouts of nostalgia. In the old days, every gig I went to would’ve been in a small venue, heavy with the scent of smoke and marijuana, sticky underfoot from spilled beer and rum and cokes, crowded, dirty, young, and with sweat raining off the ceiling. I would’ve been high on adrenaline, screaming every word from the top of my voice and felt one with the band and the crowd, never worrying about the fact that I’d be hoarse, deaf, and a couple of kilos lighter the next day. And I would’ve loved every minute of it.
5. My gig-going behaviour may or may not be changing (it could just be society) At this show I put cotton in my ears to make things clearer and to save my, probably already damaged, hearing. I sang every couple of lines or so unless it was one of my favourites. I thought about getting hydrated before I went and didn’t end up having a beer at all because I was driving (and actually paid out for safe parking). The numbers on the floor were controlled with wristbands and each person was directed to their padded seat by a smiling usher. The venue was non-smoking (I’m not a smoker anyway), shiny and new, air-conditioned, and sold the aforementioned cocktails in plastic glasses that glow in different colours and make me think of Lady Gaga. No, I didn’t have one. I drew a line.
6. I’m not that old. I found myself watching the floor crowd much of the time and wishing I’d thought to try and get tickets for that. I was totally jealous of those people jumping as a huge amorphous unit and becoming ensconced in the music like in the old days. I even saw a couple of people make an attempt at crowd surfing. I should’ve made more of an effort to get onto the floor. I might be old, but I’m not sure if I’m ready to sit down yet.
And here is 1 minute of Debaser for your viewing pleasure from a very long distance and in very poor quality. Enjoy.
I’m waiting for the Shinkansen. Waiting for the starched suited man to salute the driver. Waiting for the engine hum to dull. Waiting for the white glove to point at alignment. Waiting for the rush of cold from the opening door. Waiting to walk through the cloud of smoke and into the non-smoking cabin. Waiting to settle and tuck in to an ekibento. Waiting to be whisked off to somewhere exciting.