Coffee, Scones, Pastries, Live Girls

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.”

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.

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.