Grand Opening

sriracha-jpg

Underneath Grand Opening there is a hand written sign. Pho & Chinese Food & Free Drinks.

The paint they chose was teal and pink. The lights were dim, the orchids fake, the Grand Opening balloons popped and dangling from the awning.

But the lights were still on and the not too pretty waitress was sitting on the booth, all by herself, alone. Somehow the way she sat made me think of my grandma, and how people can spend their lives inside their houses, with the TV on, alone.

Ten thirty, probably too late, but the lights are on, Zilla said, and she is sitting there and we are hungry. So we drive past three times, debating it, and each time we drive a little faster, and the raindrops become streaks of yellow light, hitting our windshield, keeping us from our goal.

Now we really want to eat there but we cannot find a place to park.

And then we finally do and we get out and walk shoulders-up, eyes-on-toes, hands-in-pockets against the cold, the rain, quickly up to glow coming from under the Grand Opening sign.

Zilla hesitates and then he takes his hand out of his pocket and pushes the cold handle on the glass door. No little bells ring. The waitress looks up with not much interest and chews at us for a small moment and then waves us away with her chopsticks.

Closed.

Nothing happens. No one moves.

I feel suddenly irrationally sad. And mad. And I want to hug this woman tight. We will eat with you!

The rain drops and the white rude overhead lights make my skin shine. The red vinyl booths, the Sriracha sauce, the overripe plum of her lips almost make me cry.

Outside the window, our car, a color the dealer said was tango red, looks orange.  We got back in and drove home and ended up not eating at all.

I wouldn’t have gone back. But Zilla wanted to give them a chance. It doesn’t have to be fancy, he said, to be good.

This time there was an older man with a few grew strands of a long beard and a dingy half apron waiting, like he always had been, on the same red booth. His hands were still.

The fresh rolls weren’t fresh. The sprouts were starting to go brown and they were loosely folded, like they were made by a child.

The sweet chili sauce came from a jar. The feel of it, oddly thick, lacking vinegar, lacking love, took over my thoughts.

I began to taste what I felt. Why do you think I want to eat this? Do you want to eat this? You must not respect me! You must not take yourself seriously! What a waste! You are completely foolish! Opening a restaurant is not easy! Nothing is easy!

Over a not-so-fresh fresh roll, I get stupid, angry and mad.

I want them to suffer. To go out of business. But just sitting there, they don’t even seem to care.

We left the restaurant and we left town-this was when we traveled a lot, because Zilla’s dad was sick- and when we came back the grand opening was over and the place was closed.  No lights, nobody.

I imagined that they left like an office worker does in the movies, gathering a few items into a brown box that goes who knows where, making their little space into an empty space again.

The only things they left (was there ever anything else?) were the cash register, the booths, the chopsticks in their paper covers on the table, their aprons, as if they were coming back for them, draped over the counter, the Sriracha on the tables, their fake orchids, and their Grand Opening sign.

This is an old piece I never got to posting. This space—on Capitol Hill in Seattle—has been five restaurants since.

Amazing Love

Luke 6 month old hand

This week last year I was 38 weeks pregnant— full term. Somehow, Luke is already almost a year old. This morning, Zilla said: “I just realized that the first birthday party is really for the parents: We survived! We kept him alive.”

Survival was never on my mind. Waiting for Luke (which took a while—labor never progressed, induction failed, and he was evicted by cesarean when things got complicated, at 42 weeks) I wondered how this giant bulge in my belly would make life change.

Change is only something you can measure if most things stay the same, and nothing has. Having a new baby, trying to find time to work, negotiating child care, being a parent and a partner and still a child—and childish–myself, installing car seats, breastfeeding in public… It has been like moving to a new country, in a far-away time zone, with different hygiene standards and sleep customs and negotiation tactics and a new language and a very messy cuisine where eating involves putting food in your hair.

I am me. I am totally different. You really have to visit. A post-card or Facebook picture, your friends kids or babysitting, everything your mother ever told your, all the books you could possibly read—which I realize makes writing about parenthood comical if not fraught—don’t even begin to explain it.

Practically, friendships have shifted—people I thought would be there have disappeared and many new friends have arrived. I feel more connected to humanity that I ever have. I love people simple because they are someone’s mother or son. And yet, sometimes I feel lonely, but I am never alone: All exercise involves a baby stroller or pack. All sleep includes my little man. All toileting—you get the idea. The rare moment that I am without Luke, the dogs crawl in my lap, thinking that, now, finally, I belong to them. This can also be true of the husband.

My schedule has changed. I work whenever I can sneak in a minute and I guard that time like a rabid animal but feel less certain that it is time well spent. Even when I am so glad to be working, work does not have the same place in my life: being a mom has made me bigger. Work is a smaller part of who I am.

And even though I miss them, and have more time to think of them—while Luke naps, while I push the stroller, while I read Luke an old book my Mom read to me– it is hard to find time to talk to family or old friends. And equally hard to explain why: even though there is so much to say, so many changes in Luke every day, they are also imperceptible, huge and small. And sometimes I am so spent that I feel like I am unable to form syllables with my tongue, and I can’t listen, my ears just don’t hear.

I often hear people say that you need time away, time for yourself. This is true for me too. But it is also true that when I am with Luke, really with him, my problems seem to go away. I am able to let go of those knotted petty fears about the size of my jeans and the size of my paycheck, the state of my book, and everything I think I should do or want to achieve or become, I feel a kind of peace I have never known, and a confidence too. A friend of my recently said that parenting is a continuing education program devised for adults. This sounds about right. I have a lot to learn. But I think I am starting to get the idea: Don’t worry about what worries me. It’s summer! So what if I haven’t washed my hair or the car or the dog. So what if it’s been a year since I posted here and all I can think to write or talk about—oh, the cliché– is babies or motherhood? I have to remember not to try to understand everything or—my biggest temptation–plan too much.

For all its complications, the job can be pretty simple, if I let it: just love.

P.S. Thanks, Laura.

Theft

Photo booth pictures

Once, when I was in preschool, I stole a bracelet from the dress-up box and wore it home, tucked under my cuff. I felt so bad about it that the next morning I took the bracelet back. Ms. Rosell, the teacher, saw me putting the bracelet back and asked if I had “borrowed” it. I’m sure I agreed. But that was not what I intended: if my courage held up, I would have kept it. I intended theft.

Over the summer solstice, Zilla and I went to a friends’ wedding, in San Francisco. Last weekend, we went to another friend’s wedding on Vashon Island. Both times I wondered if I would know anybody other than the bride and groom, and if not, who I would talk to, and what we would talk about. Both times I realized it didn’t matter. Zilla and I were there together. It seemed like no one else was around.

Zilla and I have been married now, amazingly, almost eight years. It has been a long time since our wedding day. We were together a year before that. Nine years is not an eternity, but it is a while. Nine is also a number very close to ten. In ten years, things change.

I think the meaning of family, and love, when you cut the rest away, is to be together as you change. People say you can’t change people. I think this is right, but it is also wrong. Putting it that way it makes it seem like change does not happen, when it does. I say this instead: everyone changes, no one knows how. Love is what happens underneath, what is regardless, what, for better or worse, stays the same.

Watching our friends get married, with openness, and giddiness, and courage and embarrassment and hope as they said their vows, Zilla and I got to steal a little bit of their joy for a few hours, a few days.

Like with most theft, we didn’t really need it. We have our own joy: the kind you work out after almost-ten years. And like with most change, I don’t think I want to undo what I, and we, have become. So maybe we were just “borrowing” some joy. Remembering. Trying it on.

We took this picture at the wedding last weekend. Good friends of the bride and groom set up a picture booth. I think it proves that there is always change, even in what you call happiness and love.

Maybe there was even some interest on the joy we gave back.

 

 

My Parents’ Child

When I told my friend Roxanna, many months ago, that we were expecting, she said. “You are becoming your child’s parent. You will forget how you were before.”

“How was I before?”

“Before you are your parents’ child.”

 

Last week my pregnancy reached full term. This means our child can be born at any time; that his lungs are developed enough to breathe air.

Everyone looks at my belly and says, you are about to pop, you must be so ready, especially in this heat.

Excited, happy, but also unsure. And a little scared. Right now, I know exactly where my son is, and that he is safe. Soon I will be mom for the rest of my life. I am happy to just be Beth for a few more days.

 

My mother says that there is a kind of love that you don’t understand until you are a mother yourself. This always irritated me. It seemed untrue. In ways, it seemed unkind.

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if she might be right.

Maybe that love includes some for the birth of your own new self.

An Original Name

A brown labradoodleThe year before last, Zilla and I got a puppy. I suffer from allergies; Zilla likes doting, cuddly dogs. We wanted a dog big enough to go with us on runs. One day we saw a mellow, medium sized, non-shedding, adorable pup we both liked lying behind the counter at a bicycle shop.

“What kind of dog is that?” I asked the owner.

“Oh, her?”

We nodded. There was only one dog in the shop.

“She’s half Lab, half poodle.” I’d never heard of such a thing.

The shop owner nodded. “A labradoodle.”

 

When I was a kid Katie was a popular name. My class had Katie M. Katie K., Katie B. and Katie W., not to mention a Kate and one Catherine with a C and one Katharine with a K.

I like the name Kate. It might be my favorite name ever. But I vowed never to use it. For my child—for my dog–I wanted something unique, original, not the same.

Zilla and I found a Labradoodle breeder, and then a litter, and made a deposit. While we were waiting for our pup we talked about names. The first decision was human name or animal. When I was young our dogs had distinctly dog names, like Bear. Later we inherited and adopted two dogs with bland human names, Maggie and Charlie. One of my sister’s friend’s came over to play and looked at the dogs wide-eyed.

“Those are my parents’ names,” she said. She had long soft dark hair, glasses, and a quiet voice.

She promptly stopped playing with my sister and began yelling rude commands—and laughing—at the dogs.

 

The closer my husband and I got to getting our puppy the harder we found it to settle on a name. All the names we tried on sounded too stuffy or too silly or just plain wrong for a dog.

“Maybe,” I said, “we just need to meet her.”

Then at a dinner party someone mentioned the runner, Zola Budd.

“Zola,” I said.

My husband nodded. It was the most agreement we had so far.

“How about Zoe?” He asked. “It sounds sweeter.”

“With and e or and umlaut or oo or a y?” I asked. Not that it made any difference. I didn’t know any Zoe (ë, oo or y)’s at all.

And then we got our puppy, and then I did.

 

While I maintain that our Zoe is uniquely, adorably, sweet, and clever, she is not uniquely named.

I have met four other Zoe’s, who are also Labradoodles, in our neighborhood so far. One is in our Zoe’s dog class, another goes to the same dog park. One is even the same color. My cousin, my aunt informs me, has a Zoe the Labradoodle in another state.

In the first week, I had two women bend down to pet my Zoe, and ask her name.

“Zoe!” I say, proudly.

“Oh,” they say, a little chagrined. “That’s my name too.”

Three other people have stopped, smiled and asked give my Zoe a good pet.

“What a cute pup!” They say, burying their heads in her curls. What’s her name?”

“Zoe,” I said.

They smile deeply. “I used to have a dog called Zoe too.”

 

The worst time, I was walking Zoe about a week after we brought her home. She waddled—uniquely, adorably—in the grass. An elderly fellow stopped and asked if he could give her a pet. Of course, I said. He kneeled down and spent five whole long minutes rubbing her ears and stroking her tummy. Then he started to look really choked up.

“My wife and I just had to take our old girl in to be put down this morning. She looked just her.”

I nodded.

He slowly pushed himself up and put his hands in his pockets. Then he pulled them out again.

“Look at that, I still have treats. Can I give her one?”

“Of course,” I said.

“What’s your name, little dog?” He asked, as if she just might answer.

“Zoe,” I said.

He gave me the most horrified look.

“Really?” he said, and his eyes started to water.

“Our dog was Zoe too.”

Tears came to his eyes. He stood up quickly and shuffled down the block so fast it was almost a run.

 

Zilla says, and he might have authority on this, with a name like Zilla, that we should give our child a name that people recognize, that won’t be weird, that people will know how to pronounce, and understand. But I don’t know. I can’t stop thinking of Zoe every time we try out a name for our child.

 

Dealing with Death on Facebook

Social Network Art Icon

I woke up about this time last year to a notification that I’d been tagged in a Facebook post by an old grad school friend. I clicked on the link. It was not a school photo, like I expected, but a post that our classmate Gigi, had died. I didn’t even know he was sick. Gigi was the second friend I’d lost through Facebook so far that year.

A few weeks before that, I found out that my friend Dave had passed away through a Facebook. I was surprised as I had been with Gigi. I knew Dave through an outdoor club: I knew he was sick, but still, he seemed strong: all summer long I’d “liked” pictures of his hikes and climbs.

When I read that Dave had died, I didn’t just feel sad, but something harder to recognize, something that felt like embarrassment, or shame. I’ve always believed that we should talk more about death and grief, but is it really appropriate to post someone’s death on their wall? What are the rules of Facebook? Aren’t some things too sad to share? Or too private? And what would my friends have wanted? It’s not like they could remove a post if they didn’t like it. And besides, what was I supposed to say? What could I say? What could anyone? I didn’t understand. How could I have been so out of touch?

The only thing I knew, was that I didn’t “like” it at all.

I still hadn’t figured out how to deal with Dave’s death when I followed my friend’s link to Gigi’s page.  His profile picture showed him bald, smiling wryly from behind a blue surgical mask.

Gigi and I became friends–before Facebook even existed– probably because he’d just quit smoking. When all our classmates went outside for a cigarette, we sat together and talked. About everything. There was a moment of romance and then graduation. I moved to a different country, and fell out of touch. But I knew he’d always be there and one day we’d look each other up. I was wrong. Now it was too late.

Over the course of the day, Gigi’s Facebook page filled with photos and memories, gratitude and hugs, from everyone who had known and loved him, just as Dave’s page had, and I felt the same shame. I didn’t know what to say. Part of me wanted to say all the things that everyone else had. The other part of me wanted to curse Facebook, or fairness or God, to apologize for being a bad friend, to get mad.

I thought about getting off of Facebook entirely, but was already feeling out of touch. But when I logged on my entire feed was @Dave, tagging Dave, thanking Gigi, loving Gigi, showing Dave triumphant, literally, on mountaintops. I should have been grateful that they were so well loved, but selfishly, I wanted the posts to stop. With every post and tag I got upset all over again.

I wasn’t able to go to Gigi’s real world memorial, but I went to Dave’s. After the service, I expected that the Facebook wake would stop.  But for weeks and then months, and almost a year now, they have not. But over the weeks and months, my sense of shame and loss, privacy and panic, turned into a kind of wonder.  On Facebook, Dave and Gigi were not dead. Their memory did not fade. Almost the opposite. As time passed and people dug up old photos they grew healthier, younger. They became more alive.

This morning, I woke up to another email notification. “Reconnect with your friends on Facebook.” There were two pictures, one of Dave waving back down the trail, and another of Gigi, with the smile I remember, on our last day of school. I felt as happy as I did sad. On Facebook, Gigi still has all his brown hair.

Small Miracles

A can of chicken noodle soup

I’m not usually the person to write about the miracles of modern food science. I usually write about its opposites: food heritage, food history, and what has become the cult of fresh, local and organic. Today I want to take a minute to appreciate industrial food.

Getting pregnant, I’ve realized over the last few years, is not always something in your control. It wasn’t in ours. I’d spent so many years trying to avoid getting pregnant that it seemed like it pregnancy would be inevitable, with the precautions removed. It was not. And there was not a lot I could do about it. Well, we could do it, but it, did not always help. I began to feel like something was wrong with me. Maybe I was not healthy enough. Maybe I would get pregnant, and stay pregnant, if, somehow, I was healthier. I decided to eat more kale.

Being healthy is important, but this kind of magical thinking is the result of believing I can control things that I can’t. I didn’t get pregnant, but I did eat lots and lots of dark leafy greens. And omega-3 filled sardines, and beets and tomatoes, and salmon, and organic grass-fed beef. Foods high in good fats and folic acid. Nuts and berries and legumes; delicious, healthy, fresh, local and organic things. I shopped and cooked for my desires and my hopes and myself.  Surprisingly, it didn’t help.

Last fall I’d almost given up. We’d been trying for nearly two years. It was time for more invasive action, or adoption, or a different plan. Maybe I this motherhood thing wasn’t meant to be: I began to taste that thought. I gave up on kale and started eating burgers, and dessert, and put on 5 pounds.

And then, that month, I was late. And then still the next week, and the week after that. But being pregnant—I’d learned—did not mean I was going to have a baby. Things happen, and after everything that happened, I was too afraid to test, or talk about it, or tell. But, some things you can’t hide. I am happy to report, more than happy actually, and also scared as hell, that it is now Week 15, and things are still going well.

Fresh, local and organic are still a great thing, and a good goal, but until a week or two ago, Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup was all I could keep down. No kale, absolutely not sardines, nuts, berries, or fruit. Everything I thought was healthiest made me violently ill.

The doctor said this was a good sign. My hormone levels were high.

“And the Campbell’s Soup?” I asked. I was worried I might not be getting the nutrition I needed plus some kind of industrial poison. This was not the perfect nutrition I had in mind. “How hard do I need to push the kale?”

“Not at all,” he said, “just eat what you can. If you’re body wants you to eat kale, you will.”

That afternoon, I ate another can of Chicken Noodle Soup.

I’ve never loved the stuff. It was industrial, commercial: I only ate it when I was ill. But when I could not eat anything else, I could eat Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup. It tasted the same way it always had, and it was safe, and sanitary, and I knew I could find it wherever I went.  And that seemed like a miracle as well.

Again

Baby in the Park
I am two days late and the owner of two urine covered sticks, with two very faint lines. If I am still pregnant tomorrow those lines should be getting stronger. Being pregnant, I now understand, does not mean always that you are going to have a baby.

As a woman who is in her 30’s whose has already had a miscarriage, I am at a higher risk for having another. I am happy. I am pregnant again. But I am scared. So scared of loss that I almost want to stop trying.

This is not a good way to live. It is not a good way to parent. Although I cannot yet speak from experience, I am coming to believe that faith in the face of fear may be a mother’s truest job.

The first time I shared the news of my pregnancy because I was so happy I could not contain it. I did not believe miscarriage could happen to me. I felt settled. I felt calm. I was going to have a child. That was all in my head.

After the loss, I told myself that the next time I was late I would not test. I would wait, and wait, until the risks of miscarriage were lower.
The idea was to protect myself. Not to stress. My doctor concurred. You are relatively young. May women have miscarriages they never know about. There is nothing to worry about until three losses have occurred.

But.

But. What if something is wrong? What if something needs to be done? We’ve been trying for over a year. What if I’ve already had a handful of unknown miscarriages before… So I tested. And then again. Two tests. Two faint pink lines. If the embryo was attaching, the line should have gotten stronger.
I decided to call my doctor.
Whether or not I’m pregnant, I thought, I will think and wonder and worry that something is wrong.

Little Girl in the park
The same will be true with my child, whenever and however, he or she arrives. At 6 weeks and 12 weeks, at 20 and 37 and 42; at 4 months, 4 years, 14, and 40—it is out of my control.

I will never know for sure if they are safe. I can ask about their lives, their world, their work, their loves and hates. Maybe they will be happy. Maybe not. Maybe they will tell me. Maybe they won’t.
There is little I can do but love them, either way.

I can hurt about that forever.
Or I can let it go and keep trying.
Pain is married to the possibility of happiness.
I am pregnant today.

And today I’m not.

Lemon Meringue Pie Love

Wayne-Thiebaud

A few weeks ago my parents celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary. If you count the 5 years they knew each other before they got married, that’s a pretty awesome amount of love. It’s also a little scary. Zilla and I are only on year 5.

I happened to call my grandma the day of. “It’s you parent’s anniversary isn’t it?”

“It is,” I said. At her age, it really was good of her to remember.

“I didn’t call or send a card,” she said. “But I suppose they will forgive me. It was a wonderful wedding. I remember it. I was there.”

And for the first time I realized something that has been obvious but, I’ve just never thought of before: My grandfather was there too. They were in the middle of, or just through a divorce.

“I never liked your meatloaf, anyway,” was apparently what he said as he walked out the door.

That was thirty years ago. I’ve only met the man once, when I was about four. I remember running through an old abandoned grave yard in North Florida with his new younger-than-me son, by his new younger-than-my-mom wife. My “uncle” and I were hunting for tiny, tiny frogs. For years afterward, if my mom talked about that trip, it was to say that the new-wife didn’t cook.

Wayne Thiebaud

When Zilla and I got married, one of our friends gave us a book called The 5 Languages of Love. It is thin and purple and covered in cursive writing. I think there is a couple, holding hands, walking into the sunset. I hate this kind of book. It has sold 5 million copies.

And yet here it is, still, reminding me of important lessons. People show their love in different ways. Some people need to give and get gifts. Some people need space. Some people need to hold hands. The book didn’t say this, I do: some people need to cook.

When I think of my mom, and I think of love, I think of lemon pie (or perhaps her version of my grandmother’s spaghetti, but that’s another post.)

Last week I made a lemon pie for Zilla. I made a graham cracker crust, like my mom always did. I crushed the graham crackers and mixed them with melted butter and white granulated sugar until it was the consistency of wet sand and thought of my mom.

Making lemon meringue pie with my mom is one of my earliest memories. So early, that all of my lemon meringue pie memories involve standing on chairs. I pulled out the breakfast table chair to get to the cookbook above the fridge; I dragged the chair over to the stove to stand on it; I stood on the chair, barefoot, to stir the lemon custard.

Most of the pie making, for me, was about waiting for the custard to get thick. “Is it thick now, Mom?” “Mom, how about now?” “Is this a simmer?” “What about now?” “Mom! Is this thick?”

“Not yet, honey.” “Keep stirring.”

I wore a ruffled half-apron, which was meant to go around the waist, tied halter-top style over what would one day become boobs. I dripped blobs of custard onto the floor when I held up my wooden spoon.

Wayne Thiebaud Cakes

My mom and I used the Betty Crocker—or maybe it was the Better Homes and GardensCookbook, covered in what I would now call Italian tablecloth plain, that, I think, my mom got when she and my dad were married. The recipe for lemon meringue pie was discolored and covered in splotches and glued to and ripped off from its neighbors. I liked this. I could always find it without having to use the index.

My mom always made her lemon meringue pie tarter than the recipe called for—more lemon juice, almost double, and more lemon zest. I don’t remember my mom’s face, or her expression, while we were cooking. I remember her hands, grating zest, cracking eggs.

I was so busy watching them, trying to learn.

This makes me a little sad. People’s hands always do. The shape of their fingers and the beds of their nails are almost as personal as their smile.

When the mixture was finally thick enough, she slowly poured in the yolks in a ribbon. All at once, the custard turned yellow, like the late afternoon sunlight, and the kitchen smelled like lemon.

I started off saying we made lemon meringue pie, but at the standing-on-chairs-age, the truth is probably more like mom made lemon meringue pie despite me. She made them for the people she loved. For my dad, and for his best friend, for whom lemon meringue pie was the only exception to a no-sweets rule.  She made them for my birthday. She made them when my grandparents—my father’s parents—came to visit. I wonder now, if she was ever making them for herself?

Or if I’ve ever made a pie just for me.

I know my mom’s answer to that, or I think I do. What she loved was not so much lemon meringue, but chocolate cream pie, the kind my grandma used to make for my mom’s birthday, when she was little, and occasionally, still does.

I remember a children’s book my mom used to read me called Angel Food Cake for Angela. Angel food cake was not something my mom made, but it was something she loved. In the book, Angela’s mom wrote secret love notes for her daughter in the flour she used to make the cake. My mom used to put real love notes for my sister and me in our lunch boxes. I always had the idea that this was because my grandma wrote love notes in the flour she used for my mom’s chocolate cream pie crust as well.

Wayne Thiebaud Cakes

Meringue comes after the custard. My mother’s meringue is the best I’ve ever had.  One day, when I was about seven, I turned on the electric egg beater, which weighed a ton and used to belong to my great grandmother, who was from Iowa via Ireland, and let a lock of my then much blonder hair fall in the beater. I got the whole two foot long lank zipped up to my scalp in a second. It looked like my hair was in a giant curler, and it scared me, and it hurt.

My mom ran over and pulled the cord out (which was ancient and ungrounded) and kissed me and released the beaters form the heavy handle motor. She sat me down on the chair properly and unwound my hair. Forever more, all cooking adventures required rubber bands. Which didn’t really matter, because I didn’t usually make the meringue. And mom always did after that. She had, and I suppose still does, a way with soft peaks and the texture of beaten egg whites. She can stretch out the meringue on the top of the whole pie and then pull the beaters up to let the meringue flip over so the whole surface is covered in soft little peaks, like the tops of a twenty soft-serve vanilla ice cream cones.

And when she took the pie out of the oven it was golden brown all over. My sister was so tempted she once stuck her finger right in the top.

Wayne Thiebaud

I made Zilla a lemon meringue pie right after we met. He requested it for his birthday. I was pleased. I thought it was a choice that boded well and bespoke good taste. And, he’d never even had one like my mom made it, with extra lemon and with graham cracker crust!

So I made my first lemon meringue pie on my own. I was cooking professionally at the time—pastries no less—so this was not technically hard, but it was strange, strange to realized that this recipe was something I always made with my mom, and that even then, it had been a long time since we’d made one together.  What was essentially my first recipe, even thought I knew it by heart, now seemed strange. No one made cornstarch custard pies anymore, or graham cracker crusts, or meringue topping. The recipe was dated, like wearing bell bottoms, or painting your kitchen orange.

Zilla ate half the pie. He said it was delicious. In the interest of health, he took the rest to work.

So I made this pie for this man I was newly dating and then—oh, the innocence–he came over a day or two later and announced that another woman—who I now call that bitch — had made—of all things!–a lemon meringue pie for him too.

He was elated.

Can you believe the luck, his face said. Two pies for me!

I blinked. I was not elated. This did not feel like luck. To me, this recipe, any pie, is an intimacy, a testament of love. Was he not as free he said he was? “Why,” I demanded, “is some woman making you a pie?”

“Because it’s my birthday?” he asked, though his face had changed. He didn’t know what, but he knew something was wrong.

“You don’t make a pie for someone else’s boyfriend, period.” I said, “and especially, you don’t bring it to work.”

He looked around. He looked trapped. “Yours was better.”

I glared.

“Much better.”

I kept glaring.

“And it was ugly. Her meringue was all messed up.”

Thanks, mom. I thought. And what is that fury? It was the first time I had ever felt jealous. I realized it must be true love.

I nodded. The girl moved out of town. We moved in together and got married.

Last week, six years later, I made him a second pie.

Paintings by the wonder Wayne Tiebaund. I think he likes pie too.


Underneath

Girl wearing a veil--from Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis

Last night, at dinner, I told a friend I wanted to visit Morocco. “Istanbul,” she said, “that is where you should go.”

“And go to a hammam,” she said, “Where you will get well and truly washed. You are lying on this marble slab sliding around because of the soap in this ancient steaming bath full of nearly naked women, and the woman who is washing you is naked too, and her boobs,” my friend stopped to show me with her hands, “are huge, HUGE, and inches from your face. And when she wants you to turn over she starts slapping you on the ass. “Lady,” she says, “Lady,” because that is all the English she speaks, and you are thinking: What does she want? What am I doing here? When she finally gives up and practically picks you off the marble and turns you over -plunging your head into her breasts- herself.”

My friend was so involved in her story that there wasn’t a moment to tell her that I’d experienced the same thing myself.  For a long time, after we got back from Istanbul, I told almost the same story. The same slippery marble slab, the same HUGE boobs. Everyone always laughed.  My version involved the phrase “human car wash” and some moralization about how we were all the same underneath.

Then there was the Arab Spring, and more recently the Istanbul Protests, and I became more sensitive to encroachments into democracy and religious conservatism into secular life. I started to worry that anything I might say about Islam or women might seem disrespectful, or unkind—even though that is not how I felt—and so I decided to stop telling my hammam story, to shut up.

Woman in red Headscarf, Taskim Square, Istanbul

When it comes to politics I have often taken the position that I don’t know enough to have a say. Regardless of the subject, this is always my stance. For years I thought I was respectful. Now I think just think I was afraid.

In the very first essay I ever published, I took a stance that many people didn’t like. I said that the Blue Angels Air Show at Seafair made me uncomfortable. The fighter jets were awesome but they were military machines and it scared me that we turned them into entertainment, especially when we were—and still are, at war.

The piece, which ran in the Stranger, five years ago this week, got a huge response. Many, many people commented, and thanked me, and agreed. Many others insulted me, my writing (which was sometimes justified), my ideas and myself. They called me names, including ignorant, unpatriotic, ungrateful and misinformed. That is not how I thought of myself, or felt. I wanted to hide.

Before publishing Still At War, I thought having a voice and claiming an opinion would make me feel strong. It didn’t. As the comments came in, I felt exposed and weak. I didn’t understand that people can like you and–sometimes–hate your position. That you can simply disagree. So I decided to shut up.

Another thing I didn’t understand is that silence is the loudest, most dangerous, political comment of them all. So I try and publish again for years. And when I did, I tried to distance myself from the piece, and instead of Lauren, I used “Beth,” which is my nick-name, instead.

There is a simple practice of small honesties, and I think for me, now, this is where politics begins. Not grand statements about policy and practice, but the humble rumble observations of our lives.

Here is something true: When we visited Istanbul I often wore a headscarf.  I thought the headscarves—and the women wearing them—looked beautiful. I wanted to know what they felt like.  I chose a blue silk scarf at the Bazaar and mimicked the wrapping that I’d seen. At the Blue Mosque the guards directed us to the believers’ entrance, away from the tourists who were struggling to cover their shoulders and knees. I found this thrilling.

When I think about it now, I do not know if the Turkish women who covered their head wanted to or not. I am sure there is no one answer.  Some wore black headscarves and lace headscarves and headscarves of colorful silk and pastel blue and printed cotton. Some wore headscarves with long robes, others with designer jeans.

It wasn’t until the end of our trip that I learned enough history to realize how little I understood. The Republic of Turkey was not a Muslim a state, but a secular one, ever since the 1920’s when The Ottoman Empire fell. Men were discouraged from wearing the fez and women the headscarf since Ataturk’s secular reforms all the way back in the 30’s.

And now, we face a surge of conservatism, military force, and an infringement on secular life. I happened to be reading Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, Persepolis, about the rise of religious extremism in then-secular Iran when I heard about the Gezi Park Protests in Istanbul. Satrapi wrote about being forced to wear a headscarf as a girl. I remembered standing in Taskim Square and Istiklar Avenue where the protests were taking place. I felt strangely implicated, in my own small personal way, because I had covered my head by choice. Was I lending support to the oppression they protested against?

Here is where I would stay quiet, but think I should say what I think.

The story I have absorbed as a Western woman is that a veil is oppressive, both for society and for the women who wear it. I’m not comfortable with this idea, not always, not as a rule. Maybe I don’t know enough. Maybe oppression is something I would rather not see. But might the veil, in all its variations and colors also be expressive? Like a haircut. An ornament? Like jewelry. A symbol? Of beliefs, like a cross. Simply a personal choice? Like vegetarianism.

How does the scarf express property and ownership of women any more than what we see as the loving practice of exchanging a diamond ring? I see more and more women covering their head in America, in Seattle; women, presumably, with education, democracy, a vote, and a choice. Isn’t it rude it to assume they are oppressed?

Turns out that my friend and I visited the same hammam, not a co-ed tourist destination, as many of them have turned into, but a working, local, centuries old community bath.

What I remember now are not naked antics but a sense of familiarity, of neighborhood life, and of peace.  It was November, and cold. Outside it was just dark. The street lights reflected off of fallen leaves.  At the corner shop a woman bought vegetables for the night.  A small boy sat in a large barber chair watching TV. A clutch of bearded men leaned into a game of backgammon and laughed and drank small glasses of tea.

Then we saw it, the hammam, below a dimly light staircase and a sign.  I opened the door. An older woman, her hair wet, sat on a stool watching TV.

I remember standing in the small changing room in the near-dark, facing the wall, and taking off my clothes. The woman knocked, I wrapped myself tightly in my towel, and she led me to the bath.

The ceiling was domed.  Water trickled like an underground cave. Two other women sat in the corner. I wanted to talk to them. They were about my age. But their voices were distant and echo-ey even though they were sitting only a few feet away.

After an hour or so I went back out to the dressing hall.  The two other women came out and paid. They dried, changed, put their headscarves on, and went back into the night.

My hair was wet. I didn’t want to catch cold. So I did the same.

Post Script: My fear is still alive and well. I know because this post took me ages, really weeks to write. I was so afraid of a few simple ideas and what you might think, that my first draft chronicled the rise and fall of Constantinople and The Ottoman Empire (2000+ words alone), my second a walking map of Istanbul, and my third a list of all the edibles in the city, rather than get to the humble scary little point. Of course I didn’t see that for what it was; instead I panicked and assumed I could no longer write. I am a little bit scared that I will post this and everyone will scream at me, but more importantly, I think I now realize something about writer’s block: just like getting quiet, it happens when you are scared and trying to avoid your real thoughts.

But things happen for a reason. I happened to get in touch with my college writing teacher as I was struggling—as if contact with her might help me—which it did. She said, of her own work, that it takes its own time. That was exactly what I needed to hear. Besides, if I posted this last month, when I started it, I could have avoided talking about Seafair, which was clearly on my mind, and more than half of the point.

A note on images: I hope it is ok with Marjane Satarapi that I included some a few snaps from Persepolis. I think everyone should read it. It’s an awesome book.

One Night in Paris

Bar at Chateaubriand

Zilla’s mother, who we call Amma, just sent us a message: “Hello from Katunayaka.” Katunayaka is the name of the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Amma is in Katunayaka because she is about to get on a plane to Dubai, and from there, after 9 hours in the airport, on another plane, to Seattle. She is coming to live with us. It is a long flight—from Dubai to Seattle alone is 16 hours.

When you are traveling half way around the world, it doesn’t really matter which way you go. Zilla and I have connected through Tokyo and London and Qatar. The last time we connected through Paris.

Before I knew Zilla, I never appreciated how complicated it could be to travel. When we met, Zilla had been living in the US for almost twenty years—and he’d just gotten a green card. This was fabulous. It meant that he didn’t have to worry about the technicalities of a visa. He could always come back to the United States—and me and his job. He could always come home.

But even with a green card Zilla was still traveling as a Sri Lankan citizen—or trying to. And because of Sri Lanka’s ongoing civil war sometimes that was hard. Without visiting the consulate, submitting tax information, bank statements, a complete itinerary and a return ticket many countries wouldn’t let Zilla visit. There’s a Japanese consulate in Seattle. That’s how we got to visit Tokyo. In Qatar and Dubai, Zilla had a landing visa only: meaning, he could change planes, but not leave the airport.

You know us. We love to eat. We’ve always wanted to go through Paris together, to visit France. But the closest French consulate is in San Francisco. Those were the years when Zilla’s father was ill. We were usually making last minute trips in the middle of the night to try reach his Zilla’s dad. We weren’t planning ahead. We didn’t have to time to get Zilla a French visa, or the energy or the money for vacation. As much as we wanted to, we never made it to Paris.

It is a strange feeling to realize that the man you love and live with and share a bank account with is not welcome in the same countries you are. It is equally strange to realize that their immigration status can change and all of that does too. In January 2010, twenty years after he arrived in the US and two months after his father died, Zilla became a US citizen.  In Buddhist Sri Lanka families give an offering—a dhane—to the monks on the one year anniversary of a death. Zilla started booking flights. I remember him looking up from the computer. His face was full of wonder. “I have a US passport. We could fly through Paris.”

A restaurant

A place setting

The way the flights worked out we ended up with seven hours. We would land in Charles de Gaulle at 7pm, take the train to Gare de Lyon station to save a few Euros and then catch a taxi and get something to eat.  The plan was to splurge on the restaurant, take as long as possible eating, and then stumble back to the airport full and sated in time for our next flight.

Zilla emailed our friend S. “We have one night in Paris. Where should we eat?”

S lived in Paris years ago—and almost everywhere else that is wonderful to eat. He always knows the most quietly creative places. He used to organize rigorous tasting tours for his friends.

We got an email back almost instantly.

“The general plan would be:

-land, clear immigration, (7pm?)

-head into Paris (train or taxi, arrive at 9pm)

-get a late reservation at a bistro and eat for 2-3 hours

-head to a cocktail bar or simply wander around Paris, stopping at the occasional café

-taxi back to airport

-grab 2 hours of sleep

“I think you two would love Chateaubriand and as long as you make it there, you won’t care what you do before or after. I will call and get you a booking.”

-S

Le Chateabriand Paris 2011-6

fork on a plate

Z looked at his watch. We’d been circling Charles De Gaulle for 30 minutes. Raindrops glistened on the small oval airplane window. Yellow lights mapped out the spider web of Paris below.

“We might not make our reservation.”

By the time we landed and cleared customs it was already 9pm. We headed to the train station just as the train was pulling out. Zilla grabbed my hand and we ran across the street.

Taxis?” the driver asked.

“Oui,” Zilla said and opened the door for me.

The driver leaned back over the seat. His eyes looked like a child’s drawing of a seagull on the horizon. “Bonsoir monsieur.”

Bonsoir,” Zilla said. “Le Chateaubriand, Rue 129 Avenue de Permentier.” In what sounded to me like a perfect accent.

Ahh, vous parlez français.” The driver nodded deeply and entered the address into his GPS.

I jabbed Zilla with my elbow. “Vous parlez français?????

Zilla looked as surprised as I did. “I studied French at the Alliance Française in Sri Lanka when I was a kid. I didn’t realize I remembered.”

The things this man doesn’t tell me!

We flew down the highway. An accordion turn played on the radio. The wet road glowed with white tail lights. Then they turned red.

Zilla looked at his watch. The traffic came to a complete stop.

Ooh la la,” driver sighed.

Ooh la la,” I repeated softly to myself. “I don’t usually think of it as an expression for a traffic jam.”

“No,” Zilla said. We were now almost an hour late. “Not unless the traffic jam is wearing lingerie.”

Smiling ZillaSalad and wine

When we reached the restaurant the curtains were drawn. Zilla peeked in the corner. Every table was full.

I looked around. A man passed us on the street carrying a baguette. Metal garage doors were pulled down over store fronts, some covered in graffiti. The sidewalk was glazed with warm yellow– not yet incandescent blue-cones of light. I wasn’t sure I wanted to just walk around.

Just then another couple arrived. Then five minutes later a third. Then the door opened.

The waiter wore an ironed shirt. He had a deep blue apron around his waist. His eyes crinkled. Then he said something in French that I did not understand.

Zilla looked amazed. Then he turned to me and smiled.

“We are just in time for the second seating.”

Delicious does not begin to describe it. And really, everyone was so kind.

Wild

We wake up early. We tie into our ropes. We set up camp. Rain or shine.

We practice tying-in. We practice our ice axe arrest. We eat and drink and make a camp fire. We get in our tents early, to do it again.

In the early morning–or the late, late night–the snow is still hard, and safer for travel. People rouse. Tents glow. Head lamps emerge.

We tie into our ropes. Our fingers, our bodies, are still cold. And then we climb.

Dawn follows up the hill, in shades of blue.

Why?

Sometimes the wilderness is too big for words.

Snow Camp at Stevens Pass

Zilla in Glacier Goggles

Climbing Harness, Webbing and Prusiks

Ice Axe and Prusiks

Tents in the Snow

The Kitchen

Rain on the TentInside the TentSnow Camp 2013-7Tying in with a Figure Eight KnotA fixed LineCampfireTent at Night

Tent at Night

Alpine StartAlpine Start-Roped inClimbing

Breaking Camp and Packed Up

Run to the Car

Celebrate

My sister once said: “I never know where you are in the world but I know you are eating good cheese.” I took this as a great compliment, and it was more or less true. I love stinky cheeses– the stinkier the better–, and Zilla and I traveled whenever we could. Until we decided to settle down and try to get pregnant.

Well, last week I decided that that silver lining you are always hearing about is the foil wrapper on Stilton Cheese. For the first time in a year I knew I wasn’t pregnant. I could eat anything I wanted. I ate raw eggs. Cured meats. I cooked my beef rare.  And man, we went to PFI and bought some stinky unpasteurized cheeses. I went to town!

Case of Cheese

I last went to PFI about a month ago.  I was preparing a birthday dinner for our friend S. He was turning 40.

Five years ago, I cooked S’s 35th birthday. It was one of my first official catering gigs. The first course—of twelve–was a selection of oysters –Virginicas, Kumomotos, Totten Inslets. I ate one before everyone arrived, while I was shucking. By the time I set the second course on the table I was running for bathroom.  There were fifteen guests and ten courses to go and I was sick. Never mind about me, I was just terrified it would happen to someone else.

Zilla took over cooking for a while until we were sure I was better. Then course after course, we waited. I brought out the vitello tonnato and waited, the sorrel soup and waited, the sardine, the quail…  I was the only one. With each course the table got quiet except for full happy sounds.

Appetizers

S plans ahead. He asked us last year if we would cook for his 40th. When S was 35 he lived in Seattle. But a few years ago he moved to Hong Kong. Maybe he’d come to Seattle, he said, and celebrate with old friends here, or maybe do it in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong! I wanted to go to Hong Kong! How I could possibly say no to Hong Kong? But how could I possibly cook in an unknown kitchen?

I stayed up nights, wondering how to pack ingredients and pans.

Napkins and Cherry Blossoms

To my relief—because I never could have said no–S settled on Seattle and we began menu planning in earnest. He suggested we simply redo the previous menu. I declined, specifically, to serve anything with oysters.  Instead, we decided on a Spanish/Portuguese theme.  Delicious!

Sometimes things don’t go quite right the first time, but sometimes they go perfectly, exactly as planned. S invited fifteen guests, I served forty tastes for his 40 years, and we had no disasters, just a really fun, really delicious, filling celebration.

Which is what I love most about S: he takes the time to celebrate. I forget sometimes. And I think it’s important to remember that things really are pretty good.

After the feast

(all the pictures are before and after, because it the middle I had to cook!)

Unexpected

Oil Painting Ferdinany Holder Woman in Ecatasy

Tuesday morning last week I found out I was pregnant.  We’d been trying for a long time. This was something we wanted.

Wednesday I worried about being a mother. I wondered if I would lose myself.

Oil Painting by Julius Exter Nude with Red Cloth

Thursday I went to the museum with my friend. I felt powerful with my secret, surprised by my body, surprised by my calm, and surprised the new space I felt for love. Everything was possible.

Friday evening I had a miscarriage.

Oil Painting Girl Weeping & Nude Study

The pregnancy was gone but the space was not.

Miscarriage is the word the doctor used, not the word I would have chosen, though I wouldn’t have known what else to call it either. It felt like such a big word for such a little pregnancy. What was it exactly that we lost? A baby? Some cells? Hope? Our own ideas?

I tried act normal but my body hurt and I felt wild and weak. Angry and sad and foolish. Helpless and silly and embarrassed. Embarrassed that it happened; embarrassed by all the emotion; embarrassed by my body; embarrassed by how I felt. Embarrassed and betrayed. Not at all, in any way, in control.

I am pregnant. I miscarried.  It hurt my jaw to say it. I tried to hold myself still. Had I done either? I didn’t understand and didn’t have a language for how I felt

I read it was common. I read if it happened, it was for the best. I read you could still have healthy babies. That didn’t help. It was just as intangible.  I wanted to talk about it and I didn’t really know anyone it had happened to, no one I could call.

Oil Painting byLeo Putz of Gusti Bennat

I tried to hold myself still.

But people kept asking, “How are you?” and when your veneer is so thin it is hard not to tell the truth.

That’s when I began to hear their stories. They didn’t understand it, but they understood. That did help.

And that’s why I’m telling you.

Take me to Tokyo

Sakura Blossom Ueno Park

The cherry blossoms are just coming out and everywhere I turn I start thinking about Tokyo.

The first time Zilla took me to Sri Lanka, which was-wow- already seven years ago, our flight connected through Narita, which is to Tokyo what Seatac is to Seattle. We were in Sri Lanka almost three weeks and in Tokyo for only three days, but it is Japan that I really remember.

Part of it, I’m sure, was the unexpected good luck of it all. Sri Lanka, in those days, was still at war and while we were there the airport was bombed. Zilla and I were newly together, and being home with him, meeting his parents, being white, wondering if what we had would work and if we were even physically safe was, well, a lot. But when we landed in Japan all of that was over. We were just two people again, with two days together.

DSC_0064

We took the train in to Tokyo and walked up the stairs to Ueno Park. Petals blew in the wind and fell on my face. Without even realizing it, without even considering it might happen, even thinking it was remotely possible, we’d come to Tokyo —and had two whole days—right in the middle of the Cherry Blossom Festival.

DSC_0047

The park was pink, petals lined the paths. People were out of their offices, celebrating. Men in suits and women in skirts–knees neatly folded—sat on blue tarps and drank sake. Their shoes lined the blue plastic. Petals fell in their black hair. Petals fell on their umbrellas.  The air smelled like fresh linen. Everyone was talking and taking photos. Food carts were parked everywhere.

Japanese Fans

DSC_0079

Tokyo Strawberry Lollipops

Japanese Woman

DSC_0018

Zilla spent the first grade in Kyoto—because his parents were on sabbatical there— and he still remembers how to pronounce some Japanese. Please and thank you, bathrooms, money, takoyaki, which the food carts sold, but mostly just the basics now, since it has been thirty years. But his pronunciation is perfect and he has the right body language, a sense of when to nod and bow. So I followed his lead, and we just carried on with a few words and lots of sake, covered in petals and eating fresh tofu soup, making new friends, as it grew dark.Photographing Cherry Blossoms

That night we stayed in a traditional Japanese ryokan—or guest house–on  folded mats. I bathed nude in the traditional baths with three old ladies—more on that, I promise—and we had a thirty course meal, one of which was a single perfect strawberry, that reminds me that perfect falls short as a word. A geisha—or at least that is what she looked like to me– in full kimono brought each dish, kneeled at our low table, backed away as if I were a queen, and then bowed. I hadn’t seen anything like it, except on Reading Rainbow! We still have the menu framed on our wall.

DSC_0115

Fortunes Tokyo Ueno Park

Ueno Park Tokyo Sakura Cherry Blossoms

I think about that trip sometimes, when life gets busy and time seems to stop. Graham Greene says in Travels with my Aunt that travel makes stretches time, makes it longer. Two days, and they held enough wonder for years. Just two days.

Where would you go?

Update 1: I finished my first Computer Science problem set. BAAM! As Emeril would say. The second one was harder: baam? (not a roar, but a meow)

Update 2: Several says ago I woke up to this email: “Your friend has send you an article from WebMD.” I opened it. “How to Get Pregnant Quick: Fertility, Ovulation and Conception.” The friend who sent it? Zilla’s mom! AHHHHHHH! At least I know she’s reading my blog.

Thirty and Coding

Code.org, learning to code

Damn, if some days I don’t feel like I’m still three years old—and of all days, today, the day I turn thirty.

Everyone always asks what you are going to do for your birthday—especially when it is a big one. Honestly, I’ve been so tired lately, I didn’t want to do anything at all.  Last week, during a meeting, my dear editor and friend suggested that I take a pregnancy test and a nap.

The advice was positive but the results were not.

There are things I expected to have by now, and I think a baby is one of them. Not that that means I am ready. Most of the time I feel like a child myself.

So I woke up this morning and talked to my family, and to the friends who know I messed up my real birthday—and have kept forgetting to correct it—on facebook. I thought about going out and buying some youthful make-up for the new purplish color under my eyes, but decided against it. Instead I carried my coffee cup to my office and sat down at my desk. I would celebrate my birthday by just enjoying a regular day of my real life.

One of the things I wanted to do today was to write to you all, here on the blog. So I went into wordpress and began pressing around. I’ve been feeling a little smug lately because I used to struggle so much when I tried to do anything but type on the computer. I’d sit down and then click around and get totally lost, exhaust all my curse words and then nearly black out with rage.  Everything computer just made me feel embarrassed, and old. In college I’d talked about taking computer science. I really should have but I was scared. My boyfriend at the time warned me against it. He said he thought it would be too hard.  I don’t know what’s worse: that that I believed him, or that he said it.

So I updated my blog page—which is hardly computer science, I know, because Zilla is a computer scientist– and then went over to check my email.  My friend Alice—also a computer scientist– had sent a link to code.org. I followed it. It’s all about the importance of teaching coding and computer science in schools and how useful it was in all careers and walks of life. And I thought: ah ha! That’s what I will do to celebrate being thirty. I will get over this hump. I will finally learn to code! Nothing fancy, just the basics. Then at least when (if?) I do get pregnant I won’t have to face a fetus with more computer literacy than I!

Well, I went back to my website with a new confidence and then totally, completely, mucked it up. I was going to map one domain to the other and then add a site redirect. I thought I had done everything right, but apparently not.  When I was done, I couldn’t even access my site at all. I could not figure out what I messed up. I clicked the same buttons three hundred times. Then I clicked them again. And then one or two or three hundred more times.

This was not how I planned to spend my birthday. I tried to breathe. I then wrote urgent supplications for help to wordpress. Then I picked up my phone and then put it down–determined not to call Zilla. I allowed myself two minutes to jump up and down and then curse and then sit on the floor and cry. Really cry. My little dog Zoe was so distressed she pulled one of my files out of the file cabinet and brought it to me to try and help. I took a deep breath, put the file in the file cabinet and checked my email. And there it was: The yearly two word birthday note from the boyfriend who said I probably shouldn’t try to code.

It is possible he didn’t even say that—that it’s just my fears I’m remembering.  It was a long time ago. He was and still is a pretty good guy.  But gosh, sometimes you just have to let the past go. Years pass, and things change, and we end up with an idea of ourselves that’s way out of date.

I typed in my domain name hoping for some cyper-magic. No: my blog was lost and everything was still all messed up. So I decided to do something else for a while. I went back to code.org and followed the links for learners. I did the first exercise: using code to draw a rectangle, a circle, a square. I did it—just like I used to with crayons.

code.org text box

Update: I fixed my webpage after all. Though then I sent that funky blank post–sorry. For obvious reasons this post is appearing a few days after my birthday. AND: This morning I watched the first lecture of Intro to Computer Science which is free and available to all on MIT’s Open courseware.  I kinda got it. Plus, I liked the advice the professor gave to the class:“…do not feel inadequate when you are simply inexperienced.”

A Life Beyond our Control

Thatata in 1966 on top of Bible Rock 1

I’ve been working on my book now for just over two years, and I realize now and then that most of my people have no idea what I’ve been up to. I write and write and write and don’t say a word.

The funny thing is I’d love to talk about my book, if only I knew where to start. Marketing people say I should start with an elevator pitch—the idea of it makes me cringe—to hook you with my story in the mere fifteen seconds that we are presumably trapped together in a moving metal box. But I don’t want to hook anybody and my story takes more than fifteen seconds to tell. That is why I have been sitting at my desk for two years.

I began writing the week after Zilla’s dad passed away. His parents live in Sri Lanka—we live in Seattle—and at the time his father got seriously ill—two years before that– Sri Lanka was in the last throes of civil war.  All-in-all we made seven around the world trips to Sri Lanka, most of them without a return ticket or a suitcase after emergency midnight calls. Instead of discussing what to eat for dinner we were arguing about what constitutes care and how much money we were willing—or able—to pay.

Sometimes I feel like I’m writing a travelogue about all the places a tourist never goes, or a story about how families change, or what it is like to lose a parent. But I’ve realized recently, as revisions have come together, that what I am really writing is a love story, a story about marriage. Loving one another is as rewarding as it is hard.  We all have to learn this lesson. The truth is you cannot always make a person change.

Why add another book to the world’s great library? I don’t know. I don’t mean that in the spirit of defeat, but of possibility. I don’t know what effect my book will have, and that, to me is the whole point of creating: to take our experiences and give them a life beyond our control.

Zilla is going to read the manuscript soon, which will be interesting. Both he and his mother have been so generous to let me write about them and what I now consider our family, at such a difficult time.  Especially generous because the honest me is often frustrated, more than a little impatient, and sometimes mean. We’ll see if they still love me after they read it. That was a joke. Maybe the whole point of my story is that I now know they will.

Dirty and Sweet

Dirty Valentines

Well, I’m blushing. (Supposedly my parents read this.)  I’m not sure I even know what half of these phrases mean. Still, I think these little cookies are brave: for me love is dirty, and sweet, and surprising. Definitely embarrassing, cute, inappropriate, painful, joyful, and sad.

Zilla and I went out for Valentine’s Day early, on the 12th. For me, the 12th is now a very romantic day: it was a Tuesday, a pianist was playing old jazzy tunes, and the restaurant was relaxing, and slow. Plus, our dinner was a surprise. I was at my desk and I’d already eaten a yogurt because I expected Zilla to work late. But what do you know, a date!

We went to Dinette. The last time we ate at Dinette was on Valentine’s Day, before we’d had our, ahumm, first time.  The fact that we haven’t been back in the last six years is really only a testament to how quickly time flies. We’ve always meant to return. Dinette’d food is very nice. Out date worked out quite well. I’m not being rhetorical, but I really don’t believe it has been six years.

Capture.blog.2.14.2013

You know that sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (well actually, it was by Elizabeth Barrett, addressed to Browning) that  begins “How do I love you*? Let me count the ways”?  “I love you with the passion put to use in old griefs,” Elizabeth says, “…and with the breath and smiles and tears of all my live!”

I found these photo-booth pictures of us the other day. I think they tell you worlds about who we are–and who we are to each other. I, by nature, am serious. I like to look like I have it all together and am doing well, especially when I’m not. Zilla, on the other hand, is a constant reminder that in the face of seriousness often the best you can do is smile.

Beth&Zilla.jpg

For me, love is a funny thing: the more I love a person, the more that love can make me sad. It dosen’t really seem like it should work that way, but for me love and sadness do go hand-in-hand. Sometimes that sadness looks like a regular tired week-night fight. Other times it is something bigger: the almost crushing fear of loss that lives low down in my belly. There are so many people I love in so many ways–my family, my friends, people who are in my life now and people who by death or distance or even choice, are gone. When I think about all these many, and how I love them, I feel happy. But I miss them. Or sometimes there is regret or frustration or pain tugging at that place in my belly, and I feel sad.

unsteady.blog

A very good friend of mine always reminds me–when I start in like this–not to live in the future or mourn the past. A relationship, a love, a hope, whatever it is, she says, might be over, but no one can take your experiences from you.  Love can end, but even then it is never really lost.

There are people I believe love well–like Zilla, most of the time–who I know feel my love, and people who maybe don’t, who I am always struggling to love better. I keep learning. I think that is the main part, to keep learning to love better, to love without sadness, to remember not to be so serious, and to smile.

SavedPicture-2013214114454.jpg

*By the way, Elizabeth used thee, but I just can’t, so I replaced it with you.

And speaking of smiling: I love watching men walk around awkwardly with flowers–like they are holding somebody else’s baby–on Valentine’s Day. I used to work across the street from a flower shop–Valentine’s Day then was so fun!

You are loved

SavedPicture-20132715176.jpg

Today–after we found this great sign in the park– my very cute little dog taught herself a new trick. We were in the park for her morning walk and she dropped her ball. We happened to be on a hill so the ball rolled down. Zoe looked at the ball, cocked her head, then leapt into the air and chased it. I’ll admit this is not such a new trick. But wait: She got the ball, brought it to the top of the hill again, and then chased it. For minutes she threw her own ball and ran after it. I have video.  I think I owe filmakers more credit because even with something so clever and cute it is amazing how long minutes really are.

I just finished Natasha, by David Bezmozgis. I thought it a simple hard sweet book of stories about a family of Russian Jews who immigrate to Toronto, told by their young son Mark, as he grows up. In the first story Mark is 7, maybe 8. He falls in love with another families little dog and takes her for walks. He lets the dog off her lease. I worried about Zoe for a week.

In the last story, Mark is closer to 18. He is helping his grandfather earn a spot in a building of widows and widowers–Holocaust survivors–by attending the building’s small synagogue.  The rabbi has the landlord’s ear, and he has had a hard time gathering enough men for a minyan. Mark’s attendance helps his grandfather’s prospects.SavedPicture-201327151712.jpg

Anyway, it is in this last story that I found my favorite line. It belongs to the happy old Jew– whom the build shuns–because they suspect him of being gay. He has just lost his roommate or partner or lover or friend–with whom he lived–and on this occasion the many who want the apartment they shared suggest he should be told to go. The apartment was not in his name, they say, they disserve the apartment more, he should be out. But this old man is not worried, not bothered at all. Because, “For him, the world held neither mission nor meaning, only the possibility of joy.”

This afternoon Zoe dug her ball out of the corner of the couch and looked at me longingly. I kept typing. I had a word count to reach. She tried a bark. Then she took her ball to the top of the stairs, and just like she had on the hill at the park, she threw the ball down the stairs herself.

Coffee, Scones, Pastries, Live Girls

SavedPicture-201324143816.jpg

I am in Seattle, it is the second week of February, and the sun is shining. It wasn’t shining yesterday, but it was the day before that. And several days last week. Believe me, I’m not lying.

Still it is that time of year when people are beginning to talk about warm places. Yesterday, we imagined Mexico, Jamaica, Hawaii, Spain. Name a place, think of the beach, take a minute to imagine the smell of sunscreen.

SavedPicture-201324143838.jpg

I am realizing I like Seattle even when the sun isn’t shining. Our sunless days are long but I appreciate the time. I sit at my desk and feel grateful to be able to do the things I’ve been wanting to do. And even when the sun isn’t out, Seattle is still very pretty. There is moss. Yesterday, I saw the first pink cherry blossom. And our sound, our lakes, are an amazing slate blue.

SavedPicture-201324143637.jpg

We had some wonderful fog a few weeks ago. I work up in the night and all I could see from my window were red and green traffic lights and yellow street lights. A few of the street lights were blue, I imagine, from the new energy efficient blubs. Everything was white but these cones of color.

The park, a few hours later, was suddenly small, and secure. I thought of the expression I sometimes use, of being in a fog and how wrong it is. The fog does obscure things, but it also makes the world close to us so much clearer.

SavedPicture-201324143830.jpg

Yesterday, we were out in the mountains because the forecast had called for sun. But it never came. When we got back to the city we stopped for a coffee. I thought: I like Seattle! I even like the grey.

Where else could you find a coffee happy hour, an antique cash register, and –for only five dollars–Coffee, Scones, Pastries, and Live Girls?

(P.S. This time, as you can see behind the register, it was a live man!)

Pressing Concerns

I don’t usually take pictures of garbage piles, but that’s what this is. We’ll, not garbage exactly: compost.

In Washington this year we voted by mail. I dropped my ballot in the box two weeks ago. So yesterday, instead of going to the polls, I went to my friend Jim’s house to help with his “press” and to poke around the garden.

Over the last few weeks, as the grapes have come in, Jim has crushed and fermented Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Sryah, Cab Franc and several others. Then he stores the mash—juice, skins, seeds and all— in his shed outside. He stirs it twice a day and lets it ferment for a couple of weeks. Our job was to scoop the mix into the barrel press and collect the young wine that came off. At first it flowed easily then we had to put on the press and crank. In a few weeks there will be a racking. And then a bottling, and then many parties to come.

The whole week I had been asking Z what we should do election night. I wanted to have a party. I had the feeling that we should be with people.  But nothing had come together, and I was feeling a little sad. Without going to the polls it almost felt as if nothing had happened.

When I got home from the press I turned on the TV and settled in to watch the results. Then Z called. Friends were in town and they wanted to get together.

“When?” I asked.

“Now,” he said,”I’m in the car outside. Come outside.”

So I grabbed my coat and we met them at the bar and the whole place roared and booed and cheered together. I must learn not to worry.  It turned out to be a very good night indeed.

Hi

Hi.

I’m not really sure what to say but I do know that I want to write to you today.

One of the writing groups I am part of believes that you should write without stopping, or editing, or even thinking, every day. Even when the words don’t come, even if you think you don’t have anything to say, you write. Write: the words aren’t coming or I don’t have anything to say, but write it. By writing it, you have begun. You have shown you have something to say.

We call this writing practice. Most days, I have too many words, but some days I don’t have any. So, like pushups, I am practicing, and I am getting stronger.

The other day Zoe, my puppy, stood at the bottom of the stairs. She looked perplexed. My mother-in-law was sitting on the couch. I was heading to the garage. My husband was in the bedroom. She looked back and forth between us and whined.  She wanted to be with all of us, but she had to choose.

I know how she feels. The people I love are spread out too. There is no one place I can go and be with them all. The closer I get to one, the further I am from another.

Most of the time I feel lucky.  Even if I can’t be with all of them at the same time, I have people in my life who I love loving. And who love me. I know that. But sometimes too many people feel too far away, and I begin to feel lonely. And for some reason, feeling lonely makes me feel ashamed.

I think: All I need to do is call, or text, or write.  It sounds so easy, but it feels hard.  So today I am practicing. I still don’t know what to say, but that’s okay.  Maybe for today hi is enough.

Making God Laugh

My dad used to have a set of Post-It notes on his desk that said “If you want to make God laugh make plans.”

One thing I planned to do was write on this blog more often; every Thursday morning at nine according to my calendar. Several friends, good friends, blog-reading friends, have asked me, in that semi-hushed voice, are you still blogging? I think, of course, I’m going to post Thursday, at nine. And then I sigh to myself and wonder what it is that I’ve been doing. Then a little voice answers: living life, and making god laugh.

It’s been almost a year since Z and I headed to Sri Lanka and then Istanbul, which I’ve written about here, and then Spain and Portugal, which I haven’t even gotten to yet. I’ll tell you all about it soon (next Thursday, at nine?), when the winter sets in and my desk feels warm, but right now, the sun is out in Seattle (!), I’m furiously editing my book, foolishly starting another one, and playing with our new puppy.

She is four months old and a snuggly ball of brown fuzz. I planned to walk her in the morning—before nine– and in the evening and work with her at my feet in between. But God laughs and we have all sorts of fun instead.

A few days ago we were walking in the park. Something about the air reminded me of travel, or changing seasons, of picking up and taking off: of freedom. For a moment I looked at my little dog and felt sad. Now that we have a dog we won’t be traveling the way we did. Then she looked up from the twig she’d just found. It was one of the very first cold mornings and when she breathed out her breath hung in the air.  Just for a moment. And then it was gone, a small sign that the morning was cold and she was warm and we were both in the park, alive, together.

I tried to explain to her how great this was.  But you know how dogs are. She just wiggled and looked at me like she understood every word, which is nice for a writer sometimes. And then a breeze blew and her brown fur ruffled and I was glad that I was close to home, without any plans to go anywhere soon.

Free

Last Fall, Istanbul, Turkey

Lahmacun?”

I wanted to know if Z had anymore room to try this hot bread that the books compared to Turkish pizza. He nodded. We got out the map an stepped off the main street. Soon, our footsteps echoed. Windows were smashed. Molding and grand old façades crumbled.

I handed Z the map. “Are we going to right way?”  He nodded. A large dog’s bark echoed in an empty building.  We were only three blocks downhill from Istiklal. “What do you think happened? Where did everyone go?”

Z shrugged. “Why do you think they went anywhere?” He pointed at a shop. Three men worked a long wooden paddle in front of an oven. Hot lavash flew in and out. I stopped. They stopped. One of the men handed me a small piece and smiled. They would not let us pay.

Z put his wallet back into his pocket as a family drove past, groceries and children and grandparents, all on the motorbike. “It is a neighborhood. It’s not fancy, but people live here.”

*

We turned up the hill, towards Istiklal and our hotel just as people began to spill down on their way home from work.

Butchers cut meat, bakers flaky slabs of borek; greengrocers spooned olives or wrapped quince or dark grapes in tissue paper.  Sun set orange over the mosque and I heard the first notes of the call to prayer.

We stopped in front of one of the shops. I compared it to the picture in our book.

The round man inside waved. “Lahmacun, no? I said to him my friend you will come back one more time.”  He pointed to a boy in a leather jacket who worked kebabs on a grill. Before we could answer he began to flour the dough and pull its edges into a soft circle. “Where you from?” He looked to Z’s darker skin and then to mine.

“Sri Lanka,” Z said, “But we live in the US.”

The man ladled some sauce onto the dough and winked.  “You have American girl.”

The small room smelled of meat and smoke and sweat and sweet pepper.

“Wife,” Z said.

‘Wife,” the man said, solemnly, and pushed the paddle deep into the oven.

He looked into his wood fire and then into Z’s eyes. “You citizen?”

“Yes,” Z said, “But it took twenty years.”

“I have cousin in New York,” he smiled and tasted the lahmacun sauce. “I have American girl too. Sometime she visit. But always we fighting.”  He raised his eyebrows, took the crisp bread out of the oven, sprinkled on sumac and parsley and handed us the lahmacun. “You know women.”

The boy in the leather jacket turned a sis kebab and shook his head.

“How much?” Z asked.

I took a bite. Crunch and char and crisp leaves. The man smiled as I ate and held up his hands like a cowboy in a Western. “No, my friend, free.”

I’ve been away

Rainier and Baker, Washington

Sometimes I travel to where people are. Recently I’ve been traveling to were they are not: In the forests and the snow; and the sides and the tops of mountains.

In this wilderness I feel like I exist only in the moment, free. I am taken out of history and out of the flow of time. There is just one thing to think about: the next step.

But absence and freeze dried food make the heart grow fonder. And now that I am back at my desk the cities I’ve visited and the civilization we’ve cultivated seems like even more of a miracle. I will be visiting them again here soon.

And where you are.

Z took my hand. We dipped into the side streets and away from the crowds.  That morning we’d had an argument.  A misunderstanding.

Sometimes traveling is more of a journey into my own unknown places than it is into the world; a visit through the structures that stand, old and unused, beautiful or crumbling, in my mind.

A car honked. Z looked up. “We cross here.”

I didn’t argue. I felt cold. I wanted to stop and sit and drink tea with cubes of sugar. I did not want to tour, but to live.

I once asked Z where home was.

“Seattle,” he said, “And where you are.”

But when I am in a place, I feel that I could stay.  Like I almost live there.  He is the immigrant, but he knows where home is. He didn’t have to think a second.

Z ordered us each a short strong cup of coffee. The waiter opened a wooden desk drawer. It was full of cubes of sugar. He placed one each on the saucers next to our little cups.

When I finished Z took my cup and turned it upside down.  “Now we read your fortune.”

The tip of my nose was cold. Coffee seeped out from the rim of the cup.

Z removed it and peered in. The grounds spread over the saucer. “Humm,” Z shrugged. The corners of his eyes crinkled. “Your future looks muddy. How about lunch?”

We walked hand in hand along rows of antique shops, peering in like strangers. In the window of one I saw a row of tiny cameos, no bigger than my pinky nail.

I did not want to see any more monuments. “We could look for Turkish Delight,” Z said.   “It is supposed to be the best in the city.  Maybe the world.”

We crossed the bridge again and ducked into the streets behind it.  The shops were narrow and slouching, like they had had a long day, and were tired.

I looked up. “The book says it is here. Just around the corner.”

A spot of Technicolor in a black and white film. Pastels and sugar and spun candy. Rose, hazelnut, pistachio, orange. The soft little cubes piled into a small mountain and then into my bag.  The bell rang and another couple came in. The bell rang, and Z and I went out.

We crossed the bridge. Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire, arguments. They all come and go. My teeth ached from the sugar.

I tapped Z on the arm. “Look at the fishermen. They are still fishing.”

He kissed my forehead. “Shall we go home?” The trace of his lips felt cool in the evening air.

To the hotel, to the States, to Seattle to each other?

“Not yet.” I opened the guide book. “I want to try the lahmacun. It is supposed to be the Turkish answer to pizza…”

The Trouble with Monuments

Fall 2011. Istanbul, Turkey

More tourists at the Blue Mosque. And chestnut sellers and roast corn.  The Hagia Sophia, and then a glass of tea from a small boy in a vest and a hat, like I imagine on a monkey. With sugar it smelled like bitter roses.

The air smelled like rain. Dirty puddles reflected dark clouds and tired faces.

In both places, I think I was meant to feel splendor. But I felt cold. When I looked up at the great domed ceiling all I could think about was the people who built it: their hands and their backs, those stones and those lintels.

Christian, then Muslim, then museum. Constantinople, Ottoman Empire, Republic of Turkey.  Impermanence; even in a building so old that paths are worn into the marble.

Which is the trouble with monuments, mostly. By the time you are allowed to be there, their day is done.

Red and Delicious

Istanbul, Turkey

In the windows, in the shops, there are round red fruits with stems that look like lips, in a pucker. They are made of ceramic.

I point.  Zilla nods. “They used to fill them with rubies, to represent the seeds.”

I don’t know if this is true, but I like to imagine.

In the crates, in front of the stalls, the real red fruits are cut open, the seeds in shapes like henna on a hand.

I point. The man behind the counter nods.

He reaches for a pomegranate and slices it open. Several rubies fall out.

Quickly, he brushes them to the floor.

He puts the fruit in his juice press and pulls down the lever. Pure color drips out.

I hand him a lira.

He hands me the cup.

It is cold but his hand is warm.

Raspberries, sweet corn. Or pomegranate.

Maybe I have never tasted pomegranate before.

In the window, my lips are red.  So were his fingers.

To Buy a Turkish Carpet

Istanbul, Turkey

Z and I walked stepped out of the courtyard of the Suleymaniye Mosque quiet.
“Shoe shine?” a man asked loudly.

Z shrugged and smiled and put his boot up on the man’s stool.

“Madam?” the man said, after he had finished with Z.  His boots glimmered.

I put my foot up on the  stool too. His thick dark fingers wrapped around his brush. He polished and buffed, and then nodded. I took my foot down. He looked up at Z: “Twenty Lira.”

“Twenty lira?” Z asked. My scarf was ten lira, Zilla’s coffee was two. Twenty was too much. We shook out heads.

“Twenty lira,” the man repeated. He pointed to the mosque. He looked up at us from his stool. “Have three hungry children. Twenty lira.”

*

“Next time,” I told Z, as we walked down the cobblestone street, “keep your foot on the ground.”

He shrugged. “When you travel, you open yourself up to these things.”

“I know,” I said, “But it doesn’t feel good to feel cheated.”

“Maybe I should have kept my scarf over my head,” I said.

Z smiled. “Maybe.”

*

We walked around the corner, past a row of small shops, welders and smiths working. Inside one of them I saw a pot of beans.

I was still full from breakfast, but I gazed a moment too long. A round man smiled and waved us in, ladled us a plate of beans and set down a basket of bread.

When I was a child, I would spend afternoons with my Grandma. Probably whole days too, but I remember the afternoons. She’d make me Campbell’s Bean and Bacon soup; open the can, add water, and ladle the white beans and orange broth into a heavy white bowl.  Then she would set it in front of me and unroll a sleeve of Saltines.   Her house was quiet, shadowy, and now, years ago, sold.

I took the last bite.

“You were hungry,” Z said, smiling.

“My grandma used to serve me something like this when I was young.”

He nodded and motioned to the man for the check.

He walked over to the table and peered into bowl, smiling.

Twenty lira, I thought, but instead he held up five fingers. “Bech?”

Is that fair? Are you satisfied? He seemed to ask. He patted his belly and smiled.

*

We walked out feeling warmed.

“He wasn’t trying to scam us,” I said.

“No,” Z agreed, “He wasn’t.”

We turned a corner and followed the wall of the university. Students passed us, holding books, holding hands. Large red Turkish flags hung over the walls, swaying gently in the breeze.

A man scooted by us, and dropped something. Z dropped my hand to pick it up. A shoeshine brush.

“Sir! ir!” Z said, running after him.

The man sighed and bowed in thanks and continued on in his direction.  A moment later he was back with us. He put down his shining stand and took out his recently recovered brush.

“Please,” he said, “Please.”

Z put up his foot. A moment later, another man appeared.

“I him cousin,” he said pointing to the man we had helped, “Please.”

And so I too put up my foot. When they were done, we thanked them.

“Twenty lira,” The first said whose brush Z had retrieved.

“Twenty lira,” the cousin added, frowning.

“No,” Z said. “I thought…”

“Three hungry children,” the first said, with great injury.

“Three hungry children,” the cousin said to me.

We paid them ten each and walked around the corner to the edge of the Grand Bazar. Our shoes had never been shinier.  A man was setting out his wares, on the sidewalk.

I turned to Z.  “Do you want to buy a carpet?”

Bizarre

Istanbul, Turkey

“Spend your money! Madam, Sir, Hello, MADAM!”

I turned my head.

“Please,” he said softly, his eyes glittering, his hands together, as if in prayer.

I stopped and looked at him.

His mouth moved into a smile, “leave your money HERE!”

I jumped. Z took my hand. Another man in grey stubble swept through the scarves and saffron, lanterns and locum, with his tear-drop tray tipping, collecting abandoned glasses of tea.

We ducked out of the close gold light of the Bazar.

“So bazaar, means market?”

Z nodded.

Bizarre, I thought. For me it still means crazy.

*

Behind the Bazaar the shops were full but the streets were empty.  Naked mannequins, and plumbing parts, coats and carpets and vacuum cleaners and samovars stacked quietly behind glass.

“What’s next?” I asked.

Z looked at the map.  “The Mosques. Suleymaniye is closest. It’s just around the corner.”

I nodded and sighed as we climbed the hill.  When I looked up two women were walking down the street past us. The older covered her head. The younger, the daughter maybe, did not.

I stopped.

Z looked at me.

“Should I cover my head?”

“If you want to.”

I wrapped my scarf around my hair, knotted it in the back, and brought the tails into my coat like a scarf.  I was sure it looked wrong. But Z nodded. And you should know he is very honest.

“Not bad.”

*

Suleymaniye was quiet, almost empty.  Slabs of grey marble rose into the distance and slim spires rose into the sky.  Long thin grave stones leaned against one another, like they had been blown over in the wind. Dry leaves danced around them.

“What is he doing?” I asked.

A man sat on a small stool in front of a long wall of taps.

“Cleaning himself,” Z said. “Before prayer.”

We passed a great pile of carpets, removed our shoes and stepped inside. The ceiling domed upward like a great round breast. Large gold lanterns floated down, like jeweled earrings.  The windows glowed blue and green and gold. Red carpets covered the floor.

No nave, no cross, no echoing footsteps. Silent. Still. A place to look inside, not out.

*

I stared.

Z read the sign in a whisper. “Built in 1550… the biggest dome at the time of construction…the carpets are gifted by the faithful.”

A man rose from his prayer. His long white cotton dress flowed.

Z turned to me.

I took his arm. “Can you imagine all of the prayer it would take to wear out a carpet?”

Z reached for the shelf where our shoes were stacked.

“Taking our shoes off  probably helps,” he said, “keeps them clean.”

Then he pointed to a vacuum in the corner.  The cord plugged directly in the mosque wall.

I turned to him to smile and headscarf almost slipped off.

“I guess they’ve upgraded since 1550,” Z said.

Bizarre, I thought. Imagine the noise.

Over the Edge

Istanbul, TurkeyIstanbul, Turkey

Z and I finished our breakfast, walked up our hill, and then down to the end of Istiklal Avenue. All of the people had gone home. Street cleaners and cats roved up and down picking up bits and pieces. Sleepy-eyed simit sellers stood behind their red carts, made change, and then shoved their hands in their jackets and waited.

The street had the feeling a carnival ground in the morning.

We stopped under a tall brick cylinder. The Galata Tower.

“So this is home,” Z said, “If you get lost.”

I looked up.

Z looked at me. “You can see if from all over the city.”

A burly man set up his brass shoe shine stand. Two older women walked past, hand in hand: same ankles, same waist, same long coat, head scarf, low heeled shoes.

“So apparently this the tallest structure in the city when it was built in 1348.” Z looked up from his phone. “By the Genoese. When Istanbul was Constantinople.”

He chuckled to himself. “Wikipedia says that in 1630, a man jumped off of this tower wearing a pair of wooden wings and sailed all the way to other side of the Bosporus.”

Icarus, I thought. The women sat down and crossed their ankles in the same direction.

“And his brother,” Z said, “Shot himself off the top of the tower with a rocket. They both survived.”

The women looked up at the tower. Dear god, I thought, their poor mother.

*

We walked down the hill, long shallow steps, with empty tea glasses stuck in the corners, by doorways, on electricity meters.

“And that would be the Galata Bridge?” I said, “And the fisherman?”

Z nodded.

Shyam had said they were always fishing. And there they were, with long poles, and ironed slacks and buckets full of tiny fish.

I could not remember the name. Thanuja’s book of restaurants had mentioned them. We were supposed to eat them battered and fried. And we’d seen them last night, a man crouching in front of a bucket of the finger sized silver fish, snapping off their heads. I scrolled through my photos. Hamsi.

*

From the bridge the wind was strong and the Bosporus was dark. One of the fishermen pulled up his rod. A string of hamsi wiggled a foot apart on the line. He dropped them into his bucket and his line back into the water. Another fisherman did the same. And then another.

I looked over the edge. I expected to see the glint of the hamsi in the water. But I could not. Instead, there were jelly fish. Hundreds, thousands. Floating, translucent, like plastic bags, breathing in and out with the current.

One summer when I was young, my father ran and jumped off the seawall into the ocean. When he came back up again, his right eye was red, blood shot, swollen. We went over and looked in where he’d jumped. Floating there, in our warm green bay water was a similar slight purple creature, breathing with the current.

“Do you see all the jellyfish?” Z asked.

I nodded. I could see the Galata Tower behind us.

“I wonder if anyone ever jumps in?”

The Extra Hours

We picked Istanbul for the food, and 5 Oda was for the breakfasts. They were supposed to be very good.

“When you are ready for breakfast call us and in 10 or 15 minutes, we will bring it.”

I looked for the number. Then I realized it was six in the morning. They did not serve breakfast until eight.

Part of what I love about traveling is the extra hours, when you cannot sleep and don’t want to; time to read, and to write, which so often slips away when the whole world is awake and moving.

Before we left Seattle, my friend Thanuja said she’d been reading Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul.

I don’t usually read about a place before I visit it. Somehow, it always feels wrong– like reading the Cliff Notes to a great novel. But it was early morning and Z was still sleeping, so I opened the book.

Istanbul. 1950’s. Pamuk as a small boy, staring at his Grandmother, having her breakfast. She always took her breakfast in bed. Little Orhan is learning how delicious it is to hold a piece of salty cheese in your teeth while you sip at your sweet hot tea.

I imagined this woman, lying in bed, fat and stern and indulgent, reading her newspaper. What did she look like? What did any of them look like—the people of this city–in the mornings, in the privacy of their homes.

*

The sun came up and so did breakfast. I could not count the dishes. There were eggs with the yolks like Indian gold. Tomatoes, cucumbers. Coffee and cream. Orange juice and cherry juice. A basket of breads, sliced, dark and light, and pieces of something that looked like a pretzel, covered in sesame seeds. I stared at these pieces and my mind was in the classroom, with little Orhan, looking into the school bag of the girl he adored, a simit on top, all of the sesame seeds it was covered in, collecting at the bottom of her bag.

And then there was cheese: three types, soft, and hard and salty. And jam: quince, orange, rose. Honey, and sesame butter, and borek.

The borek was my favorite. Layers of phyllo and dill and cheese….

I prepared to try Orhan’s grandmother’s trick, but realized, with everything I had, I only had coffee.

Z looked up at me. “Shall we see the mosques?”

I nodded. The cube of cheese was still in my mouth.

Call to Prayer

The call to prayer in the still-dark Istanbul morning reminded me of Sri Lanka. I got out of bed and stood on the balcony. There was nothing to see but lights on Istanbul’s Asian bank and the ships moving across the Bosporus. The voice called again and I felt cold. But also warm.

“What are you doing?” Z asked, propping up on one elbow.

“Listening,” I said.

“Can you listen with the door shut? It’s cold.”

*

One day years ago, I was stuck in traffic on the 520 Bridge that connects Seattle to The East Side. To the south: rough water, and Mt. Rainier. To the north the water was as smooth as a bath tub. A call like I’d just heard came over the radio, followed by an NPR voice. At the time I’d thought the story was fantastic: Turkish Imams were called in for voice training based on neighborhood complaints on their calls to prayer. While they were gone the voice teacher gave the mosque a tape of his call to prayer to play morning, noon, and night. The question, the NPR voice asked, was whether the Imams returning from voice school were still playing the recording and sleeping-in in the morning.

Of course they wanted to sleep in, I’d thought. But now, shivering, I felt they could not but want to be awake.

Chicken Pudding, Tavak Gogsu

Istanbul, Turkey

Several months ago, when Z and I decided to go to Istanbul, our good friends and eating companions, Shyam and Thanuja decided to go too. Not with us, but before us. They got home a week before we left.

“The women there know how to dress,” Thanuja told me. We were in Seattle, on our way to pick quince. “You need good boots, and a nice coat. And I have a book for you, for recommendations, restaurants and little places to eat. From the same people who wrote the Istanbul Eats blog.”  This is great, I thought. It’s like I have a scout.

As soon as we got to Istanbul, Z  had the book out and was flipping through it, looking for dinner.

“They left notes for us,” he said, almost smirking. “Says here that Shyam won $500 dollars—betting that some chard they had in a meze was steamed and not sautéed.”

“And he was right?” I asked. Thanuja is more of the cook.

“I guess so,” Z said, “If he won the money.”

I laughed. If you know them, this sounds quite familiar. It is wonderful to have friends. They were so far away, but it felt like they were right there with us.

*

We rattled down the stairs and up the hill and onto a road so full of people that they seemed to flow like a river. Lights hung between the buildings, above the glass store fronts, from the old ornate molding. Chestnut roasters stood behind red carts, turning their chestnuts and warming their hands. A trolley that reminded me of San Francisco slowly parted the people and the women, in their boots, clicked and clacked on the cobblestones.

When I was living in Italy, I had a night, alone, in Milan, on my way home for Christmas. Heels and coats, window displays, lights between buildings. It was so beautiful it had made me lonely. I took Z’s arm.

“What are you thinking?” he asked.

“It is like Milan,” I said. The biggest difference was not in the place, but in his presence.

“What were you expecting?”

Only when I said it did I realize: “I was expecting it to be more foreign.”

Z nodded and steered me towards the side of the street. We peered into a window. Trays upon trays of small confections were stacked on top of each other. Green, brown, crispy, soft, translucent…

“Baklava.” Z said. I recognized them, and yet they were completely different.

Before I could go in he steered me back across the street and pointed to another glass case. The light in the shop lit up his features. “And tavak gogsu.”

“Is that the..?” But before I could finish my sentence Z was inside the pasteleria, talking to the man at the counter. I followed him in. We sat down. The man brought a dish to our table, white and wobbly, browned on top.

“Sweet chicken pudding?” I finished. Z already had the spoon in his mouth.

He nodded.

“So there’s chicken in there?” I asked, more to emphasize my skepticism that to hear his answer.

“It’s a thickener,” Z said, when he swallowed. “You can’t even taste it.”

“Then why use it?” I asked.

“It’s a texture thing. Here have some, it’s delicious.” He stuck a bite in my mouth, quick and decisive, like he was feeding a toddler.

Smooth and thick, rich and toothsome. My first thought? “This is so familiar.”

“Did I ever tell you,” I asked, as I took another bite, “how my sister used to make pudding at night?”

Z nodded and I began the story.

Very safe. Very boring.

Istanbul.Turkey

After several weeks of waiting for a reply from the Servas hosts, Z and I decided to go ahead and try to extend our hotel stay.

“We can always meet them for dinner,” I said, “If they get back to us later.”

Z made the call. “All taken care of. The hotel even insisted on sending a taxi to pick us up at the airport.”

*

We flew into Istanbul at the pink of sunset. “Look,” Z said, taking my book from my hands, “We should be able to see the mosques.” I leaned over him and into the window. The plane banked. I saw only sky. Z sighed. “I guess we are on the wrong side.”

I looked up. All of the passengers from the middle of the plane over were bent towards the windows. Sighs eased from their mouths. An orange ray shone on their faces and up onto the cabin ceiling. I leaned over too, but I couldn’t see a thing.

“Do we call when we land?” I asked. Z shook his head. ‘They said the driver would be there with a sign.”

We walked out of customs, looking. Men leaned against the railing, some clean-shaven, some in beards, some wearing the same small cylindrical hat Z said Sri Lankan Muslims wore after making a pilgrimage.  They held signs with names, clipboards and tour company posters. I’ve always wondered who these signs were for, who would be meeting someone they didn’t know, what the meeting would be like. We looked for our names. And then looked some more. Then we looked at each other. There was no one here for us. “What do we do now?” I asked, just to say the words.

Z shrugged. “Wait?”

And so we waited. I watched the women. One, in a track suit, leaned over the currency exchange counter, petit, but rounded. She had the figure of my best friend. Another, young, her head covered in black, ran into the arms of an older woman, smiling so widely I had to smile too. She put the woman’s hand to her forehead, and then kissed it, before falling into her with a hug. She was a large woman, but soft. Good, I imagined, for a hug. Many others wore scarves over their heads, silk flowers folded into a triangle, and tied under the chin. With this: long winter coats that came to their ankles. Children holding their fingers. Their cheeks ruddy, their eyes kind and black.

“More heads are covered,” I said, “than I expected.”

Z nodded. “They are probably returning from their Pilgrimage too.” We’d seen many muslim families in the airport in Sri Lanka. “It is the season.”

I looked over again. One woman took a small child from her shoulder and handed it to a man with the same eyes, and lashes. The woman next to her took two corners of the child’s blanket. The mother took two others. The man placed the child inside, and walked away. The women swung the blanket and the child back and forth, laughing. His cries ceased. I turned Z to show him. When I turned back a man with a sign was rushing past. 5 Oda it said. And then it said my name.

*

“Besh oda?” The man asked. And I learned my first word in Turkish. Besh, rhymes with mesh. Five. 5 Oda.

“Besh oda,” I nodded.

The man sighed. “This way please.”

We drove along the Bosporus, black and glinting, in Friday night traffic, passing, with busses, under what I’d call ruins. We stopped and started. In the distance the minarets glowed, tall yellow spires. “Four is Suleymaniye, 6 is Blue Mosque,” the driver said. I leaned over Z to look. They looked like tall thin, supermodel rockets.

The driver turned into a narrow road, with small shops lighting it from either side. People pulsed down the sidewalk. The car rumbled over cobblestone. The driver made another turn, as if into darkness, and stopped.

“Here?” I asked. I am always amazed that ‘here’ can be anywhere. And that when you don’t know where you are you can arrive without even knowing it.

“Besh Oda?” The driver said turning around, tired, with a hint of exhaustion and doubt.

“Yes,” Z said, “Besh Oda.” The driver sighed.

“Tesh…” Z closed the door.

“What did you say?” I asked him.

“Tesh…”

“Say it again?”

“Teshekur ederim,” Z said, very slowly.

I tried, he shook his head. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I couldn’t say it either. When I was here before Murat’s mom invited us over for dessert, and when I tried to thank her, she said, ‘Speak Turkish, you are in Turkey! She then drilled me till I was perfect.”

“Tech…” I tried again. Z shook his head again.

So I turned to the driver, and said “Thank you.”

*

We walked through a small homey kitchen and right into an elevator. “We’ll see,” said the young man who met us, “which is faster, technology, or legs.” He patted his legs as he said this, in case, I imagined, he had gotten the word wrong. As the elevator door closed I could hear the metal stairs ring under his weight.

Z smiled that “we’re here” smile and the doors opened again. The man was waiting for us on the small platform. Behind him a ship in night lights floated down the Bosporus. “As I thought,” he said, “Legs!” and smiled. He wore a slight mohawk, an earing and a cashmere sweater.

He showed us all the light switches and extra pillows and then unfolded a map on the dining table. It might as well have been his home.

“How many days do you visit?”

“Six,” Z said, “Seven nights.”

“Ah,” he said, and I thought how that sound, to me, belongs to a much older man.

“This is here,” he pointed and then circled, “and this is Istiklar,”he drew a long line, “and this is where antique shops are,” he said, drawing a circle. “But for tomorrow, the Mosques?”

He looked up, we nodded, he picked up his pen.

“From here, you go over the Galata Bridge, or under, there are very good fish restaurants to the right, there, and then you see the Mosques, and the Bazar. Spend maybe one day. Look, see, and then cross the street. There the prices are,” he clicked his tongue, “much lower.”

Z took the pen and pointed to the larger areas around the mosque. “Is it safe?”

Our host took the pen back, and made larger and larger circles. “Here and here. Very conservative areas. Very safe. Very boring.”

“Anything else?” he asked.

“Laundry?” Z said.

“Ah,” he said, with a smile, “I do not know. I give my laundry to my friends. Sorry.” He turned back to the map and made another circle. “This is a very nice place. 5 Kat. You can go for a glass of wine, and see the view.”

He smiled, and closed the door. The stairs rung as he descended.

5 Oda was great. You’ll hear more about it soon, but it is definitely recommended.

An Offering

From Tangalle, we spent a day driving north into the hills of Kandy and the next three preparing for the bana (sermon) and the dhane (meal offering) we were here to give on the one year anniversary of Thaththa’s death.

When I try to put them into words I find that last year’s ceremonies are in my mind as images. But then people and places always are.

Last year, Z and I arrived in Sri Lanka only hours before Thaththa passed. There was grief. There was tiredness, acute and chronic, mixed like a bad dream with the energy of pain. There was jet lag and lack of sleep. There were people I had never seen before moving the furniture out of the living room.  I had no one to ask.  I do not speak the language and Z’s family had not been religious. Neither he nor Amma had experienced this before either.

Thaththa died in the afternoon. In the evening a monk arrived. Z bowed to him. In my head, I have an image of Z, his head at the monk’s feet, orange robes and orange tiles on the floor.  The monk chanted. I have an image of the living room cleared out, except a small table and the seat the monk is sitting in. On the table, there is a statue of the Buddha, a bowl of flowers, a glass of water and a clock.

For the dhane, the next morning, I have images of a full, full kitchen, and of fog, and of Ravindra, who was Thaththa’s caregiver, cutting pieces of banana frond into circles to cover the plates. He looked up at me and explained: “We offer the foods Sir liked to eat.” Ravindra always called Thaththa Sir. I remember thinking, Thaththa liked to eat everything.

I went back into the kitchen.  Rani, who has been part of the family longer than I have, was cooking. Pots and pans were stacked on every surface: Kiribath, and rice and stringhoppers (steamed rice noodle nests), steaming; smoky sour polos (jackfruit curry), coconut sambol, plates and dishes I didn’t recognize, can’t remember.  Besides those, fruit plates and sweets plates for each monk, who, when they arrived, sat along the perimeter of the room, in their orange robes, eating in the begging bowls they brought with them.

I could not explain what was happening, or what the monk said, but I had these images.

This time, I asked Amma if it was okay to take pictures of monks.

“I don’t know,” she said, but I can ask them.

*

We talked about the menu during the car ride. “I made marshmallows for the sweets plate,” Amma said, “Mahamma said she’s bringing bibikkan, and Kumari will probably send potato sweets.

Bibikkan is one of my favorites. Mahamma brought bibikkan for me and Z the first time I met her.  She took Z by the hand and gave him a heavy loaf all wrapped up in layers of newspaper, like she’s done every time I’ve seen her since then. I asked her the ingredients, but I could not understand her accent. Or, as Z likes to point out, she could not understand mine.

When Mahamma arrived for the bana I asked her for the recipe again. “Coconut water, golden syrup, cashew nuts, candied pumpkin, semolina, rosewater…,” she said, folding down fingers as she counted of the ingredients.

On our last visit to her house we caught a man delivering the cakes, the pans still warm. I’d forgotten this until I asked her how long to bake the batter. She shrugged. “I don’t know. My oven is not large. The baker always does it.”

As we left Mahamma’s, the time the baker delivered the cakes, white streamers crisscrossed over her alley.

“Look, a wedding.”

Z shook his head. “No, baby, white is for funerals.”

I finished writing down the recipe and asked Mahamma if I could take her picture. She smiled, but turned her head away.

By six that evening the living room was empty except for the monk’s chair, Z was on his way to the temple, Mahamma was in the kitchen, and Amma had changed into white.

I was sitting in our room, filled with the living room furniture, watching the sun go down. The sky was orange. Geckos chirped. Voices were starting to echo in the empty room downstairs. I tried to take a few pictures, but the light was low.

*

After the sermon, Z said to me, “I had a nice talk with the monk in the car on the ride home. He wanted to know if you spoke Sinhala.”

Z continued. “He said at first he thought you did, but then he wasn’t sure. I told him you didn’t. He said he would have translated for you if he’d known.”

It seemed funny, the idea of chatting with monk. “What else did you talk about?”

“We just talked. About politics, about the new road.” Z thought for a minute. “Because I don’t know the customs there isn’t that formality.”

“And he’s not offended?” I asked.

“No,” Z said, slowly, as he closed our bedroom door, “I think he likes it.”

Z and I folded our white clothes over the back of the stacked up living room chairs, slept, got up, and put them on again. By five thirty the next morning Z was on his way to get the monks for the dhane and I was taking pictures of Rani making cashew curry in the kitchen. Mahamma began to portion out the bibikkan. Someone rolled out a mat in the middle of the living room floor. I thought of Ravindra and took pictures.

The phone rang. Amma answered it. “They are leaving the temple now.”

*

The house is laid out it two parts, the living room and kitchen on one side, the bedrooms on the other. The formal front door is in the middle. Except for the dhane last year, I have never seen it used.

Amma stood at the door to the living room. I was just coming down the hall from the bedroom. The head monk was right outside the front door.

“Do you have your camera?” Amma whispered loudly.

I was trying to get it on when the head monk walked down the stairs, and then turned towards me. He held out a book. “This is for you,” he said, gently.

He handed it to me and then walked into the living room. Seven monks followed him. Z bowed to the floor.  They sat in their orange robes and ate from their begging bowls. And somehow I didn’t want to take any pictures.

Lata’s Curd

The first meal I had in Sri Lanka was curd and pani. Sri Lankan ‘curd’ is like Greek yogurt or clotted cream: rich creamy buffalo milk, boiled and set in a clay pot, the cream settled atop it like a blanket. This was drizzled with pani, or palm syrup, boiled down and smokey, the flavor part maple, part molasses. Z and I were sitting around his parents table, our eyes bleary with travel. “One day I’ll have to take you to the south,” Z said, “where the best curd is made.” I nodded and had another serving.

As we drove north from Tangalle we began to see paddy fields, buffaloes and their birds, and then curd shops along the road.  We stopped at several. Our favorite was Lata’s Curds.

Lata rinsed three bowls and three spoons in a basin, set the curd and pani on the table in front of us, and began to serve generous portions.

More pani? More curd? When we had eaten all we could Lata wrapped up a pot of curd to go.

Click here to see the whole album.

No Sugar

We stayed two nights at Kurumba House, in Tangalle, being cooked and cared for by Rupa and Tekla, who arrived from the beach in the morning to make breakfast and left in the evening the same way. A handful of others walked and rode their motorbike on the wide smooth sand.

Amma asked Rupa and Tekla about the Tsunami. “Madam,” they said, and then continued in Singhalese.

Z turned to me when they are done. “They said that some people got out, but because of the lagoon, the water came from two directions, and most didn’t make it. Now, they say, there are drills every few months.”

This whole coast was struck by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and the architecture of the place shows it. Solid cool concrete, floor and walls, bed frame and closets, night stand and wash basin. Beautiful, but more than that, functional.  If there was a flood, nothing would float away save the mattress.

Rupa and Tekla cleared the lunch plates and began to plan dinner. “Rice and curry?” Rupa asked. Tekla said a few words I couldn’t follow. Amma nodded. Then I caught the word miris. Chili.

“I can handle the spice,” I said, quickly, guessing. They all smiled.

The few Sinhalese words I know fall into two categories: food and creepy crawlies. Kimbulabunnis: sweet croissant like rolls. Miris: chili. The: tea. Seeni: sugar. Garandia: snake. Huna: gecko. Meru: flying termites that flock to the light.

When Thaththa wouldn’t eat, at the end of his illness, I learned epah, the word for no.

Tea, Madam?” Rupa asked.

Amma nodded. “Beth?”

“Yes,” I said, then added, “Seeni epah.”

Rupa smiled, “Yes Madam, no sugar.”

As it fell dark the geckos began to chirp. This is sometimes the loudest sound in all of Sri Lanka.

Amma scratched a bite on her arm. “There are so many huna. They are always falling on people.”

I looked behind me. I could easily spot five of the pale bodies on the wall. When I was a kid geckos were the stuff of nightmares. In Sri Lanka, where there is little difference between indoors and outdoors, they are just part of life.

One of the bodies wriggled a bit.

“Did you know there is an almanac for huna? “You look up where the huna falls on you and it tells you your fortune.”

I put down my book as Rupa set pumpkin, loofa, eggplant, fish, and prawn curries on the table.

“Did they fall on you?” I asked Amma.

“What, the huna?”

She got up and went to the table, almost laughing. “Many times.”

Kurumba House. Wonderful. I hope to stay there again. Comfortable, relaxed, delicious.

Fishermen in Tangalle

When we arrived at Tangalle it was Poya, the monthly Buddhist holiday on the full moon.  In Kandy, Poya means meat is not sold at the supermarkets and that young children wear their white Sunday outfits to temple, where I see them walking, holding hands, up the hill to our house. In Tangalle, Poya means all the fishing boats are pulled up on the beach.


The next morning Amma and I went out to meet the fishermen.  We arrived just as they pulled in the nets.

Click to see the full album.

Heading South

From Colombo we headed south along the coast.  Z drove. I sat next to him. Amma was in the back seat. As we approached Moratuwa, where Amma grew up, the regular traffic of three-wheelers, women under umbrellas, school children, motorcycles carrying families of four, sedans, lorries, and timber trucks with men balanced on top, bicycles, cows, dogs, tricycle lottery ticket vendors and old men in sarongs driving bullock carts, grew to include gangs of fishermen holding their net on their shoulders, in one long quarter-mile train, the net dipping between them like the icing on the edge of a cake.

To our right was a row of huts and shacks, a crucifix three times as tall as them, more nets, a railroad track, and the long flat blue Indian Ocean.

We passed a row of small fish laid out to dry on the side of the road. The sun shone off of them like mirrors. “Did you hear what Lalitha said about the miris maalu and the onions?” Zilla asked.

I shook my head.

“She said if you don’t put onions then the chills are enough to preserve the fish several days without refrigeration.”

“Long years ago my grandmother used to make a dry kind of miris maalu with sprats and send it to us in the mail,” Amma said.

“How long did it take to get to you?”

“Oh, a day or two. Early on, before the postal service was good, maybe three. We used to take them when we went on pilgrimages this way to Kataragama. We’d build a little fire at night and boil rice and eat them together. It was quite exciting.”

“And it didn’t spoil?” I asked.

“No,” Amma replied.  “They do all sorts of things to keep the fish here. They also make a terrible sauce in this area with the heads and guts. It’s fermented like.”

“Did your mother make that when you were a girl?”

“No, no, the fish vendor would come round with his basket of fish and then if Amma decided to buy she came out with the pot and he would clean the fish and put it right in.  When that man cleaned the fish he just scraped the guts right onto the ground.”

“It must have smelled terrible.”

“Oh, no,” Amma said. “Invariably a cat appeared out of nowhere and the mess was just gone.”

As she says this it is easier to imagine her as a girl of 6 or 7 rather than 67.

Galle Face Hotel, Colombo

The twins were born yesterday morning. Identical girls, in matching bassinets, under matching pink mosquito nets.

After we went to see them we took Amma to the Galle Face Hotel, in Colombo, for her birthday lunch. As we walked in the door we were greeted by this fellow.

“I have been here since British times.” “Really?” Amma said. “Yes, Madam,” he said. “I began in 1942.” Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948.

“How old could he be?” I asked Zilla.

“He probably started as a bellboy, when boy is what was really meant.”

Kiribath for Breakfast

Lalitha Aunty serves kiribath for breakfast. Kiribath is a soft rice pudding that is then formed into a cake. It is made with coconut milk, rice, and salt. Kiribath is the first solid meal served to babies and the first food eaten in the Sinhala New Year.  At Lalitha’s house, it is eaten every day.

Kiribath is rich and creamy, salty and slightly sweet.  We ate ours with Seeni Sambol,  Miris Maalu,  and Maalu Kiri Hodi, Sear  fish in sour and a yellow curries.  In Sri Lanka, curry is a breakfast, lunch and dinner affair.

After breakfast, we had mangoes. Amma just said it is the season. We should find more as we head south.

Recipes

Kiri means milk, often coconut milk. Bath means rice.  Maalu means fish. Hodi means gravy.  Goraka is a soft brown seed used as a souring agent in Sri Lankan curries. Maldive Fish is a dried tuna flake from the Maldive Islands that adds a savory element to many Sri Lankan curries.

Kiri Bath

Rice, water, coconut milk, salt.

Place one cup of rice in a pan.  Place your finger on top of the rice and add water up to the second joint. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat as much as possible, cover, and cook over very low heat until the water is absorbed. Once the water is absorbed, add the coconut milk and salt and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture no longer sticks on the sides of the pan.  Pile the kiribath on to a plate and use the back of your spoon to smooth it. Slice in diamonds and serve with Pol Sambol.

Miris Maalu

Sear Fish, (or King Makerel) cut in thin steaks, lime juice, coconut oil, minced ginger and garlic, curry leaf, chilli powder, goraka paste, salt, & water.

Wash the fish with key lime juice, rub with goraka paste and salt, then heat a little oil with ginger, garlic and curry leaf. When they begin to brown add some chilli powder. To this mixture add the fish and enough water to barely cover.

Then, as Lalitha says, “Cook a bit and then it is done.”

Beigels, Bagels

London was lovely. We landed at noon, hopped on the Heathrow Express to Paddington, and then walked to Marylebone Parish Market, all in under an hour.  Cristiano, his wife, and daughter were waiting. There is something so reassuring about finding friends exactly how you remember them. The last time I saw Cristiano, he was showing my mom and dad and me around his hometown of Padua, outside of Venice.  This time we drank mint tea at a new Lebanese restaurant.  His daughter slept. He and Zilla chatted.  Friends, I thought.  Sometimes the concept still amazes me.

It happened to be—Cristiano told us—Guy Fawkes Day, the annual celebration Fawkes capture and the foiled plot to bomb the House of Lords in 1605.   Around four Cristiano and family left to make their way back to Greenwich and the fireworks. At first we thought we’d join them, but then the jet lag began to set in.  “But you are returning, no?” Cristiano asked. We nodded. After Istanbul. “Then there is the possibility of a pop-up restaurant, if you are interested…” Zilla and I nodded. “Yes, yes!”

Outside, the weather was just like Seattle, grey, vaguely wet, and not quite cold. You would think it sounds dreary, but the people on the street made it lively.  The crisp clip clop of footsteps.  The quick pace of everyone walking where they needed to go.

Z tucked my arm in his as we turned down a side street.  “Why is it that townhouses are so much cuter here?” he asked. “Is it the window boxes?”

I shrugged. “It’s just London.”

*

For dinner we took the train out to Canary Wharf to a pub called The Grapes, half of which is built on pilings out over the Thames. Our hope was that we might catch a view of the fireworks and enjoy a real ale. And that is exactly what did happen, except that to the ale we added fried deviled whitebait, aged 21 day aged Welsh steak, green pea mash (which is lovely) , roasted carrots, and sticky toffee pudding at the nice old restaurant upstairs.  We got invited to share a beer with one group and I engaged in a loo line chat with another.  According to the menu the place was a favorite hangout of Dickens. If I lived there it would soon be a favorite hangout of mine too.

We got to the hotel tired and fell fast asleep till about three, pretended to sleep another hour or so longer and then decided to get up and go to a traditional all-night ‘beigel shop,’ from our favorite guide book in  Hackney. By five thirty we were on our way just as others were stumbling home.

We ducked in to Brick Lane Beigel Bake as the night began to fade and took our place in line.  A man in a blue work suit stirred three spoonfuls of sugar into his tea from the large bowl by the register. “What are you doing today, luv?” The plump clerk asked him as she made change. “Werkin, always werkin,” the man said, with a nod. A tray of bagels came out from the kitchen. The bell on the door dinged.

“And what would you like, luv?” the lady asked Z. A heat lamp shone over a slap of what looked like corned beef. Z read the sign. “A salt beef bagel please.” She nodded. “Mustard?”

Just to be scientific, and also because I ordered cream cheese, I ordered a second salt beef bagel with mustard and a pickle from the competition next door.

*

I’ve always been skeptical of short trips, fearing they’d be too hectic, but we spent a relaxed afternoon with Z’s cousins in Sunbury and were back at Heathrow just over a day after we arrived. We are on the plane now, flying over the Malives. We should be in Sri Lanka in an hour.

 

Comptoir Libanais, 65 Wigmore Street, London, W1U

The Grapes, 76 Narrow Street, E14

Brick Lane Beigel Bake, 159 Brick Lane, E1

 

Another place that feels like home…

We are finally heading to the Seattle airport after spending much of last night trying to fit three weeks and two hemispheres worth of luggage into two carry-ons. We failed. But we would have made it if it weren’t for the toys!

Z and I spent a good part of last Sunday at Magic Mouse Toys in Pioneer Square picking out gifts for his little cousins. The oldest boy is twelve and likes dinosaurs; his little brother is 5 and likes whatever his brother does. They got an archeological dig set and a puzzle. The three girls got a board game they can (hopefully) play together. Two others got a Legos/Pictionary hybrid where you try to build the Lego figure on your card. These are the main gifts.  In addition there are a bunch of little stocking stuffer sized goodies for each of them—rubber pencils, false teeth, and photosensitive paper.

Z took me with him to pick out toys for his cousins the first he took me to Sri Lanka. Each toy had to be perfect.  I was surprised how serious he was about it: He spent an hour browsing and asking the clerk for advice before he even
started to choose. At one point I suggested princess wands for the girls. He wrinkled his nose.  “I want something more educational. You can make costumes in Sri Lanka. Good toys are harder to come by.”

At that point our relationship was very new, and to me, the trip to Sri Lanka see was going to be a test of it. I was excited but also scared.  Sri Lanka was very far away. I had never been to Asia before.  A war was on. Besides all that there was eating with my fingers and how to handle the spices.  Plus wasn’t sure if Z’s parents would like me.

After another hour at Magic Mouse we picked out several copies of The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls, combination science fair and mischief manuals, a few science kits, and a small fleet of rubber band propelled flying monkeys.

That was four years ago.  Shortly after our first visit, Z’s father fell ill.  Since then we’ve been back to Sri Lanka six times. The phone would ring in Seattle, in the middle of the night, and Z and I would be on a plane the next morning. There was no time to buy toys.

As Z and I stood in Magic Mouse last Sunday discussing which puzzle to get or whether or not the kids would be able to play Banannagrams, I realized how different I felt about going to Sri Lanka. This time I was not scared.  Thaththa’s illness gave me so much time in Sri Lanka—and with Z’s family–that I feel comfortable there now.  Sri Lanka is still plenty foreign and I don’t speak the language, but I can eat with my fingers and handle the spices.  As I looked at the toys, I realized Sri Lanka is another place that is beginning to feel like home.

I am sure we will not go hungry…

Z and I are leaving Friday, which as I write this I realize, is tomorrow. Luckily, Friday evening.  We are going to Sri Lanka and Istanbul with a few days in London in between to see Z’s cousins and their new baby, eat at The Quality Chop House and show Z Borough Market.

I’m also hoping to eat at my friend Cristiano’s new food truck Tongue N’ Cheek—which might be the best name ever for a salumi venture. (And cutest website.) The name also describes Cristiano perfectly.

So we fly from Seattle (tomorrow! today?) to London, for a day, and then to Sri Lanka. We’ll meet Amma (it’s her birthday) at Katunayake Airport and from there, go visit Z’s grandmother and cousins.  One of his cousins is due that very day, with twins! She asked the doctor to delay the delivery so the twin’s birthday would coincide with Amma’s. We shall see.

So Z and I will spend two days visiting with all of them and then head down the coast, for a few days at the beach.  We’re going to stay at a bungalow in Tangalle that comes with a cook!

From Tangalle we will head back up country to Kandy, where Z grew up, and spend our second week at home. On the last day, we will be preparing a dane for the monks at the Peridnyia University Temple in honor of his father’s life.  It is a kind of ritual offering; we’ll be cooking the kinds of things Thaththa liked to eat.

The day after the dane we fly back to London and then after an airport overnight, to Istanbul. Which is very exciting.   I was the one that wanted to go there and now we are on our way.

We are not yet sure where we’ll be staying the first few days. We signed up for Servas, a homestay organization I heard about from a friend  and are waiting to see  if any of the families we contacted in Instanbul get back to us. My greedy hope was to do some Turkish home cooking!

Whatever happens, we’ll spend seven nights in Istanbul, I’m sure eating and exploring. I’ve been reading the blogs Café Fernando and Istanbul Eats for ideas. Rose petal jam, real shish kebab, lokum, yogurt from the place yogurt was born. I am sure I will not go hungry.

Then back to London and, finally, home.  And now, back to packing.