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.

Living and Loving Life as a Lifelong Learner

My summer break is coming to a close; I am just one short work week away from my teacher orientation days that precede the start of each new school year. Next weekend at this time, I will be of course putting together my weekly essay as part of my “essay a week for one year” goal (this week marks #35 of 52, still on track!), but I will also be working on lesson plans for the first week of the 2015-2016 school year, my ninth year of teaching.

Last week I spent some time reflecting on how I spent my summer. As usual, I made frequent trips to the public library, carting home bags of books. My reading this summer was very eclectic. I began reading books about preserving fruits and vegetables, making jams and jellies, and canning in general. I had some new health issues which also required reading and research. I also read a good bit of fiction, another Agatha Christie, a few “chick lit” beach-type books, and most significantly, Paula McLain’s outstanding novel Circling the Sun, which introduced me to British colonial Africa and Beryl Markham. circling the sunI was very intrigued with McLain’s historical fiction of this time and place, and of Beryl Markham and the people she worked and socialized with while breaking barriers and glass ceilings everywhere she went. I didn’t know much about colonial Africa, and frankly, reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness put me off wanting to know more. But after reading McLain’s The Paris Wife, I vowed to read anything and everything she wrote after that. If you haven’t read anything by Paula McLain yet, please do yourself a favor and read The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun immediately.

One of my goals for this summer was to exercise more, and this I also accomplished, building up my daily walks in duration, while walking my precious pup Puccini and chatting with my neighbors in their yards along the way. As successful as my reading and walking were this summer, I fear that, once the school year begins and my school bag becomes stuffed with papers to grade, I won’t allot the time for either of these two important things: exercising my mind as well as exercising my body. I hope to find a better balance this year between my school work and my personal life, so making time for reading and exercising will be a top priority.

Recently I was chatting with someone and mentioned that I taught myself how to make jam this summer, and my husband quipped, “Lifelong learner”. In retrospect, those two words really sum up my personal philosophy. lifelong learning tshirtAs much as I love teaching, I truly love learning more. Over the years, I’ve taught myself enough about gardening to pepper my porch with lovely pots of flowering plants. Last summer I taught myself the art of decoupage and I was thrilled with my results. crocheted baby blanketIn 2002, I dusted off my knitting needles and crochet hooks from my childhood and retaught myself the basics well enough to make and sell scarves and other fashion accessories while living in Europe for two years. Europeans love their scarves! With a very basic beginner sewing machine I am able to patch, repair, hem, and sometimes create things for me and my family. baby quiltI love making baby blankets and quilts for my friends, in fact, I love giving homemade gifts whenever I can. Cooking and baking will always be one of my passions and nothing is more relaxing for me than to try out a new dish or learning about an exotic cuisine from some faraway place. Currently I am learning about and experimenting with low-carb cooking and eating. This, too, will prove difficult once the school year begins and visits to the faculty room become fraught with dangerous donations from well-meaning parents.

tom and michelle on metro to dcThis past Friday, my husband took the day off and we took the metro to DC for the day. We decided to spend the day at the National Gallery of Art, have a nice lunch in a museum café, and maybe learn something new from the art world. The weather was beautiful so we got off the metro a stop early and took a longer walk to the museum. Once there, armed with the museum map of “director’s favorites”, we wandered through the different galleries at our leisure. What did I learn? Well, for starters, I learned that I’m not a fan of the German painters. The art seemed to me to be cold and distant. I could feel a distinct difference when looking at paintings from other Europeans.

front of da vinci paintingI also learned that the National Gallery of Art is the home of the only Da Vinci in North America, and that it is painted on the front and back of the panel. reverse side of da vinci paintingWhen entering the gallery where Ginerva de’ Benci (circa 1474) is hanging, there is a buzz to the room. I remember experiencing this same buzz when visiting the Louvre entering the gallery where the Mona Lisa hangs, isolated and protected in all her glory. I had never heard of the Ginerva de’ Benci painting but it is pretty exciting being able to see a Da Vinci without crossing the ocean, and because it is owned by the Smithsonian, it’s absolutely free to view it.

We spent quite a bit of time in the Flemish galleries, near and dear to our hearts after living for two years in Belgium. Vermeer has his own little section. I first learned about Vermeer when I read Girl with a Pearl Earring, a novel by Tracy Chevalier which is a fictionalized biography of Vermeer’s life, this particular painting, and the servant who sat for this portrait. The book was adapted into a stunni
ng film starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.

vermeer girl with red hatTwo of the Vermeer paintings at the National Gallery of Art also centered on one woman, and both seemed to have the same ethereal quality as Girl with a Pearl Earring. In The Girl with the Red Hat, I was struck by how much this woman reminded me of Princess Anne of the Royal Family of Great Britain, hat and all.princess anne

The other Vermeer painting, A Lady Writing, also features a woman donning a headdress of sorts. vermeer a lady writingMy husband and I studied it for a while and could not determine if she is wearing ribbons in her hair as decoration or as some primitive type of curling system. She is obviously of wealth, wearing what appears to be an ermine-trimmed dressing gown.

Our day at the museum was very enjoyable, and indeed, very relaxing. We strolled through the sculpture garden and sat for a while listening to the gurgling of the fountains. We had a lovely lunch from the Garden Café buffet (mostly low-carb choices) and even ran into our friend, Sister Marie de Sales, me and Sister Mariewho bestowed upon us a gift of great happiness, our dog Puccini. It was the perfect way to end my summer break.

Last school year ended with my father becoming very ill and dying in early May. This was the first summer in eight years without his annual two-week visit. my dad and me 2014While I am thankful that he did not linger in poor health and suffer, it is very bittersweet to think about his time here with my family each summer, watching cooking shows and Deadliest Catch, Edge of Alaska, and other fishing and hunting programs. He loved to eat out and was always coming up with new ways to steal the restaurant check away from us at the end of the meal. He also loved my cooking and always asked if I could cook a big pot of mussels or French onion soup while he was here.

Overall, this summer has been just what I needed: time to rest, relax, reflect, and refresh. I’ve had time to take care of some household repairs and reorganization, read and write more, work on some crafts, exercise and walk my dog several times a day, and of course, continue down my path of lifelong learning. In a week, I will be ready to take on the challenges of a new school year and all that lies ahead of me. Bring it on!