Travel for Beginners

soy sauceI know almost nothing about soy sauce. I know I like to dip my sushi rolls into it and I know that the colored tops of the soy sauce bottles on the tables in Asian restaurants denote whether the soy sauce is regular (red) or low sodium (green). I know it is one of the two ingredients in the teriyaki sauce I make to go on Aunt Kay’s Sesame Chicken, a recipe I begged off of the wife of my husband’s boss after a dinner party at their house. I also know almost nothing about Singapore, like for instance, what languages the people speak there.

All that changed this week, however, and I didn’t even have to leave my house. I traveled to Singapore and learned about the ancient art of making soy sauce by reading Kirstin Chen’s debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners. I am itching to go to an Asian market and buy a bottle of really expensive, artisanal soy sauce and have a tasting of it on little rice crackers. I am also intrigued with the idea of tasting a splash of it in a glass of ice-cold Sprite.

I really enjoyed reading Chen’s story of a young woman from Singapore who has made a life for herself in America, only to have it come crashing down around her when her American husband leaves her for a much younger but also Asian woman. She escapes the trauma of her life by returning home, flying back to the nest to the home, and business, of her parents. She reluctantly goes to work at her family’s artisanal soy sauce factory with her father, not kicking and screaming per se because the energy that would involve is not something she can muster, but with a melancholy resignation that it is better than staying home to watch her mother drink herself to death. Running on a track of constant avoidance, first of her parents and their provincial life, then of her first career, then of her husband, then of her family’s business, and finally of her very image of herself, she comes full circle and discovers who and what she truly is, the keeper of the legacy of her grandfather’s life’s work. I learned so much from Chen’s book.

A few years ago, a similar thing happened when I stumbled upon The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger. This book also took me to a new and exciting world where I had little knowledge or background. Geography is not my strong suit so I can honestly say I did not even know where to find Bangladesh on a map. In reading The Newlyweds, I was transported into a world of internet dating, arranged marriage, and immigration. Although it was not her first novel, Freudenberger was new to me, and after finishing it I immediately Googled her to find out her life story. I was shocked that she was American, born and raised in New York City, and while she had taught English in Thailand, she was no more Bangladeshi than I. How had she managed to get inside the head of Amina so completely and how did she transfer to paper the complex character profile of an immigrant in an arranged marriage? As a burgeoning writer, this fascinates me, and it makes me jealous.

a week in winterImagining village life in an Irish town is not as challenging as the exotic allure of Asia, particularly because I have an affinity for British literature, films, and television. Yet, Maeve Binchy’s novels sweep you away with such force that you feel as though you could walk out of your own door and pop down to the village for a pint at the local pub. I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Binchy’s books, but it is her last one, A Week in Winter, finished just before her death, that perfectly blended her talent of rich development of quirky characters with the authentic imagery of her setting. A Week in Winter tells the story of an inn set high on the cliffs of Stoneybridge, a fictional town on the west coast of Ireland. I would eat ramen noodles for a year to save enough money to travel to Ireland to spend a few weeks at Stone House.

Halfway through the book, Binchy takes her readers on a cliff walk with two of her characters, Winnie and Lillian, and the imagery in that part of the story is particularly powerful:

“And at first, it was exhilarating. The spray was salty and the rocks large, dark, and menacing. The cries of the wild birds and the pounding of the sea made talking impossible. They strode on together, pausing to look out over the Atlantic and to realize that the next land was three thousand miles away in the United States.”

a moveable feastPaula McLain also has the power to jerk me away from my suburban 21st century life. I’ve been fortunate to travel to Paris several times but her book The Paris Wife not only takes you to 1920s Paris but also inside the marriage of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Drawing upon Hemingway’s own telling of his first marriage and life as a young, struggling writer in his nonfiction A Moveable Feast, she retells and embellishes the story from Richardson’s perspective. Hemingway’s angst over his writing and his constant search for approval of his work combined with Richardson’s loneliness and insecurity as a young bride is palatable and poignant.

McLain then jumps continents but remains in the 1920s to take us on safari, on a journey to colonial Africa, and into the life of Beryl Markham in her masterpiece Circling the Sun. My travels have taken me around Europe but never to Asia or Africa. While I have always wanted to visit parts of Asia, I had no desire to experience Africa, until, that is, I read Circling the Sun. McLain’s words describing Kenya paint a vivid picture, albeit a picture that cannot be recreated in today’s world, a picture I now long to see for myself. She is a master storyteller, and her ability to not only bring back to life both Hadley Richardson and Beryl Markham, but to make the reader truly care about them, is astounding.

states visitedMy first vacation was a 45-minute plane ride to Monroe, Louisiana, the opposite side of my home state, for my cousin’s college graduation. I was in the 8th grade and before that I had only traveled by car, to New Orleans (60 miles away) or Baton Rouge (120 miles away). Two years later I flew to Memphis to visit my friend who was a patient at St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Up until the year between my junior and senior years of high school, I had not been anywhere else. Before that high school trip to countries visitedEurope, my only real travel was between the pages of a book, where my passport was always at the ready and well-used. Being an avid reader during my childhood and adolescence broadened my very narrow view of the world and introduced me to people, places, and possibilities I could not imagine for myself. Even today, after having traveled to 18 countries and 30 states, I still read for these very same reasons.

book with flowersDo yourself a favor; take a trip. You don’t need to pack much; you only need some time and a comfy chair. Escape to another world, meet some new people, learn about a new culture, taste some new foods, learn some new words. Read a good book.

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One Chord

elton johnOne chord. That’s all it takes. One chord and I instantly know this song and the artist. It’s the sound of that one chord that caused me to have a reoccurring nightmare for weeks on end in 1974 where I would hear that chord and then faint, waking up hours later after having missed an entire live rock concert with my favorite rock star of all times, Sir Elton John.

I was introduced to Elton John in the summer of 1973 while on a student tour of Europe. Five girls from my high school, Delta Heritage Academy in Buras, Louisiana, went together on this trip and we were paired up with five boys from Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. We all got to be good friends, but one boy, Al, was the most popular of his group. He was fun and flirty with all of us, and deep down inside, I think we each thought he liked us best. While sitting on the bus on long rides from one country to another, he told me about Elton John and how much he loved his music. We had music on the bus, but no Elton John. The 1972 Harvest album by Neil Young was played so much that I knew every word to every song on that album. “…I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold. I’ve been in my mind; it’s such a fine line. That keeps me searching for a heart of gold…”

After my big adventure in Europe, I returned to high school for my senior year. The chaperones had given each of us a list of the addresses of all of the students on the trip so we could keep in touch. Al began writing me and several of the other girls in my group. He ended up coming for a visit, staying part of the trip with my family and part of the trip with another family. He brought hostess gifts to my mom, and for me, he brought me a book of piano sheet music from Elton John’s most recent album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. One of the hits from that album was “Bennie and the Jets”. The visit did not work out exactly as I had hoped, but my book of Elton John sheet music is still sitting in my piano bench.

In August of 1974 I headed off to my freshman year of college at Southeastern Louisiana University. After my parents helped me carry all of my belongings to my dorm room, and my mom helped me unpack a few things, we said our goodbyes and they headed home, which was a good two and a half hour drive away. 8 track tape playerThe first thing I did after they left was to set up one of my prized possessions: my 8 track tape player. It was a gift from the parents of my best friend, Judy. I had visited Judy in the hospital during our sophomore year of high school and the 8 track tape player was a thank you present. I only had a few tapes: The Carpenters, Barry Manilow, Simon and Garfunkel, and of course, Elton John, and I played them over and over and over. I played them so much that they began to “drag” when I played them. I’m not sure if it was the tapes wearing out or the machine itself but I discovered I could stop the dragging by wedging my hairbrush under the tape to support it and help hold it in its correct position in the machine.

So, on that August afternoon, feeling very melancholy about being nearly alone in my dorm—hardly anyone had moved in yet, including my roommate, a girl I had never met before, I popped in my 8 track tape of Elton John’s Madman Across the Water madman across the water 8 trackand sang along while I unpacked and got myself ready for my college adventure. Even today, some forty years later, hearing “Tiny Dancer” or “Levon” yanks me right back to that dorm room in Livingston Hall, and I can even close my eyes and picture myself standing at my dorm window, watching the boys rugby team practicing on the field adjacent to my dorm, while eating tuna salad on Club Crackers.

All of my family and friends knew how much I loved Elton John’s music. Just after classes started my freshman year, I received an early birthday card from my godmother, my mother’s only sister who I have always called Nanny Pat. In the card was a note about my present. She had purchased for me a ticket to see Elton John in concert at LSU. My uncle was going to drive to Hammond to pick me up, drive my cousin, Elizabeth—who I have always called “Lizard”, and me to Baton Rouge for the concert which we would attend, and then he would drive me back to my dorm, where he would have to sign me in with my dorm mother since it would be after midnight. ELTON JOHN IN CONCERT! Was that the best gift ever?

Now, you may recall I have told you about my Nanny Pat before. She gave me the subscription to Reader’s Digest magazine when I was just a young girl—my very own copy that arrived every month addressed to ME. I absolutely loved my Reader’s Digest magazines. That was the best gift ever. But this—this was something on a whole different level. This was ELTON JOHN. I was ecstatic over this early birthday gift. Everyone on campus knew I was going to that concert.

And, that is when the nightmares began. One night I dreamed I was in my uncle’s car, in the backseat with Lizard, and we get to the arena. We go inside and find our seats. The lights go down. The stage is dark until one single light shines down on a grand piano. Then we hear the chord—that one chord. And, that is when I faint. In the dream/nightmare, I faint and slink down between the stadium seats. My cousin is frantically trying to revive me but I stay out cold until the lights all come on at the end of the concert, when I wake up, look around, and realize that I have missed the entire concert.

I told my cousin about this and she calmly said she would take care of it. I had no idea what that meant but in the car on the way to Baton Rouge she tells me that she has “smelling salts” in her purse just in case the nightmare comes true. That’s what kind of person she is, always prepared, like a Girl Scout loaded down with merit badges. And, she hasn’t changed a bit. Recently, when my father became very ill and I flew down to Louisiana to see him, there she was, driving several hours alone; leaving her boys to fend for themselves so she could come and help me out.

So, on September 29, 1974, I saw Elton John in concert with Lizard at my side. It was a glorious concert, my first ever. And, when he played “Bennie and the Jets”, I swooned but did not faint. The smelling salts were not needed I am happy to report.
concert set list (2)Thanks to the power of Google, I was able to find the setlist from the concert and I am a little surprised as to how few songs he actually played. I don’t remember it feeling short, or feeling that there were so many of his hit songs he didn’t play. I just remember how great it was and how really great my aunt and uncle were to go to all this trouble for me to see my favorite rock star in concert.

I did get to see Elton John one other time. My parents gave my husband and I tickets to see him in concert for our anniversary in 2001. It was his “Face to Face” tour with Billy Joel. face to face (3)I’m not really a Billy Joel fan but beggars can’t be choosers. The concert conveniently was scheduled for when we were going to be in Louisiana for Easter break. My parents got up at the crack of dawn the day the tickets went on sale and drove to New Orleans to buy them. My dad waited in line while my mom sat in the car. It’s hard to picture that, my dad waiting in line to buy tickets for two aging rock stars. “Bennie and the Jets” was performed near the end of the concert. Just as I was thinking he wasn’t going to play it, there it was—the chord. And, the audience erupted as it always does when he hits it. He also played my other favorites “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon”, and many others. Billy Joel was very entertaining and the two performed together seamlessly. It was a great concert.

In June of 1994 Disney released its major hit The Lion King, with the VHS tape released in 1995. Our daughters were five and three at the time, and like little sponges, memorized every single word to every song in that movie. When we finally purchased a car that had a CD player in it, I stocked it with CD’s of my favorite Elton John albums. (Yes, I had come a long way from the 8 track tape!) One day I was driving them home from school, playing an Elton John CD, when my older daughter said, “Mom, that man sounds like the man singing ‘The Circle of Life’ in The Lion King movie.” I explained to her that, yes, it was the same man, Elton John. She was so shocked that I knew who he was and that I actually had CD’s with him singing things that weren’t from her movie! The Lion King revitalized Elton John’s career and introduced him to a whole new generation. His contributions also earned him an Oscar and a Grammy for music from that film.

In early September of 1997, in the midst of extreme grief, he asked his long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin to write new lyrics to one of his classic hits to pay tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, who had died in a car accident in Paris, France. The new song, “Candle in the Wind 1997”, began with the words “Goodbye England’s rose” and was poignant and heartbreaking. Elton John performed the song live at Diana’s funeral, adding to the already other-worldly experience of the internationally broadcast funeral of such a young, vibrant, and beautiful woman.

My favorites of his repertoire all come from seven albums produced in the 1970’s, during my high school and college days. They instantly bring me back to the carefree and happy days of being a young adult, with my entire life ahead of me. goodbye yellow brick roadThese songs, particularly those from the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, are the ones I go back to time and time again. In The Wizard of Oz, the yellow brick road leads Dorothy and her new friends to the Emerald City, where hopefully the Wizard will help Dorothy return home. For me, however, these songs represent a time when I was heading out to make my own way in the world. Elton John’s early work is my “coming of age” music, and all it takes is that one chord of “Bennie and the Jets” to make me feel nostalgic and homesick.

Living in Belgium: A Few of My Favorite Things

For two glorious years I lived abroad, as a “trailing spouse” expat living in Waterloo, Belgium. Yes, that Waterloo. As in the battlefield, which is the site of the famous 1815 Battle of Waterloo. As in Napoléon, Emperor of France, who met his great defeat at the hands of England’s Duke of Wellington. In July of 2002, to prepare for my husband’s two year assignment at NATO headquarters located in Brussels, I quit my stressful but lucrative position as a real estate paralegal, sold our house, and sorted our belongings into three separate areas: long-term storage, sea shipment, and air shipment. Then, we loaded up our tween-aged daughters, our Persian cat, and four giant suitcases, and jetted off to the heart of Europe for our big adventure.

Maria in The Sound of Music sang about “a few of her favorite things”. I have many favorites from my two years in Belgium, and many of them line up with Maria’s favorites as well.

Raindrops on roses. It rains a lot in Belgium. Before leaving for Belgium, I bought a three-quarter length, lightweight raincoat with a hood at LL Bean. I wore that coat nearly every day the whole time we lived there. Cloudy and overcast most days, the lack of sunlight never really bothered me but I had several expat friends who struggled with the climate, ultimately resulting to their taking melatonin supplements. For me, chilly rainy days were the perfect excuse to snuggle under a blanket on the sofa, reading a good book or knitting a scarf, or busy at work in my warm kitchen, making a pot of soup and a loaf of freshly baked bread.

Whiskers on kittens. Well, that one really needs a slight adjustment: whiskers on puppies. Dogs, everywhere. Small perfectly groomed dogs on leashes are seen everywhere in Belgium, as in France. Outdoor cafes, farmers’ markets, buses, trains, everywhere. It was not out of the ordinary to have a meal in a fine-dining restaurant and see a small dog under a nearby table eating daintily from a dish on the floor. In many cases, these dogs in restaurants were better behaved than most children in American restaurants. Sad, but true. I think I started my transformation into a dog person while living in Belgium, with the full conversion occurring when we welcomed our adored Maltipoo, Puccini, into our lives.

Bright copper kettles. Where to begin on this one? For a self-proclaimed foodie, living in Belgium was a dream made in heaven. Each meal out was an adventure in itself. Take, for example, the inexpensive cafeteria-styled Lunch Garden, where I first had the classic Belgian vegetable side dish, chicons au gratin, Belgian endive sautéed with leeks and bathed in a white cream sauce, dusted with breadcrumbs and then browned to perfection in the broiler. Ordinary beef stew, cooked over low, slow heat with caramelized onions and Belgian beer becomes the extraordinary carbonades flamandes, served with mustard and frites (the thin ultra-crispy French fries.

Every meal, regardless of the price point, was served with impeccable style. Table manners and dining etiquette in general are greatly elevated from what we experience in America. The fork and knife you used for your salad or appetizer are whisked away and replaced with fresh silverware for your entrée, which is also removed for your dessert course. It is not hard to get used to that, and then return home bristling at the thought of using the same knife and fork throughout your meal.

Warm woolen mittens. Hats, scarves, and gloves are de rigueur in Europe. Men and women alike accessorize every outfit before going out, even on the simplest of errands. Football jersey and sweats? Uh, no. Baggy sweater and yoga pants? Certainly not. Tailored, well-fitting slacks accompanied by sleek sweater sets are then brought to life by scarves artfully tied, matching hat and glove sets, and raingear. The main reason behind this is that European bedrooms do not typically have built-in closets. “Wardrobes”, portable closets, are purchased for each bedroom. Since storage space is at a minimum, clothing is purchased carefully to mix and match with other pieces. Also, since most Europeans have dishwasher-sized washer/dryer combo machines, not everything is washed each time it is worn. The addition of accessory pieces extends the look and seasonality of a limited wardrobe.

Brown paper packages tied up with strings. I had a plethora of choices for food shopping while living in Belgium. My husband had shopping privileges at the U.S. Military Commissary at Chievres. This was all-American grocery shopping where we could find all of our favorites from home, and shop tax-free to boot! What’s not to like about buying exactly what you ate at home only cheaper? Well, for one thing, why not just stay home? How do you fully experience a foreign culture if you don’t shop and eat as they do?

A few blocks from my rental house on Avenue de Versailles in Waterloo was a Delhaize grocery store. It was similar in size and style as the Safeway grocery store in my current neighborhood here in Maryland. There I shopped as the locals did, seasonally. One day when strolling through the produce aisle, I saw a display of freshly washed but oddly shaped radishes, still glistening with droplets of water, tied in neat bunches with their greens still intact, arranged artistically around platters of what appeared to be softened butter and small dishes of coarse salt. I watched as shoppers stopped at the display, selected a trimmed radish from a silver bowl, dipped it in the soft butter and then into the coarse salt. When in Rome, right? The taste was out of this world. I don’t think I had ever eaten a whole radish before, and certainly not buttered and salted, but it was exquisite. This display was announcing the arrival of the new crop of French Breakfast radishes, a signal that spring was on its way.

While living in Waterloo, I also had access to specialty food shops, many dotted around the circle at the center of town. Every purchase made in these shops, la poissonnerie (fishmonger), the patisserie (pastry shop), or the boulangerie (bakery), all come to you in the same way, presented as if on a silver platter, wrapped in clean brown paper, tied with butcher’s twine. Une baguette? Rolled in the brown paper, with the ends tucked in. Tarte au citron? Laid gently on a lace paper doily and placed in a box which is then wrapped in the twine and tied.

Nowhere else was I happier, however, than in the fromagerie (cheese shop). I’ve been told that there is a different Belgian cheese for every day of the year, and if I could but live a year trying a different cheese each and every day, I would die a very happy girl. I once entered the fromagerie in the center of Waterloo where the shopkeeper asked if she could help me. In my very beginner French, I explained I needed to create a cheese plate. She asked “pourquoi?” You see, the story of why the food is needed and what it is needed for is almost as important as the selection of the food itself. I then explained that it was for a book club meeting. “Ah,” she said, après-dinner?” “Oui,” I replied. She then set about offering me samples of different types of cheese which followed the basic formula for a successful cheese plate: a soft, fresh, ripe cheese such as a Brie; a mature, hard, sharp cheese such as an Emmentaler; and finally, a semi-hard crumbling cheese such as a Bleu. Since then, I’ve also learned that it is nice to combine cheeses made from different milks, such as a goat’s milk cheese or chèvre with a sheep’s milk cheese such as manchego.

After two years of life in Belgium, we packed up our now teenage daughters and our Persian cat, and sorted all of our belongings into their original three areas for transport back to the U.S.  We came back home with better French, hundreds of photos of our European travels, many friends from all over the world, and a true understanding of what it is like to live in a foreign culture. We returned to Maryland with its crazy traffic, four seasons, 24/7 shopping, fast food, workaholic lives, increased competition in school and sports, and all of the friends and family we had left behind. We also came home with a lifetime of good memories of happy times where we all broadened our world view, an experience we still cherish.