I’m in HCMC now and the place is frankly overwhelming. I was here ten years ago and it didn’t seem quite such a daunting place. But my friend Lan is a good guide and she took me out for noodles last night, which were superb. I’ve just walked around my neighborhood in Cholon a couple of times today without trying to see anything in particular, just to get a feel for the place. And the feeling is pretty overwhelming. Loud, crowded, busy, a little chaotic. Not unfriendly. And because I am far from the tourist heart of Saigon, there is none of the usual attempt to get me to buy things. The Vietnamese are doing plenty of buying and selling without my participation, not that they mind if I have a coffee and a banh my (sandwich) at a table on the sidewalk. I like the food better in the south, I think — more flavor, sweeter, more chilis. Lan has set up a bunch of literary meeting for me over tomorrow and the next day. I’ll have made more meaningful contacts in a week here than in almost three weeks in Hanoi, where the literary scene is either dead or has simply refused to show itself to me. Perhaps I offended somone there and the word has gone out. Or perhaps the literary institutions are simply moribund and I don’t have enough Vietnamese to penetrate the informal networks on my own. I had thought I had a couple of folks who were going to help me out, but they have fallen silent. Khong sao.
As I mentioned, Hanoi does not get up very early, the shops just beginning to open around eight o’clock. By then of course I’m in desperate need of coffe. The places that open earliest are just north of Hoan Kiem Lake, so I headed over there this morning to get some cafe nau (brown coffee), which is strong black coffee with a dollop of sweetened condensed milk lying on the bottom of the cup waiting to be stirred up with a little spoon. It packs quite a wallop and after I’d had a cup I ordered pho ga (chicken noodle soup) for breakfast, which is traditional. It was delicious, especially with a spoonful of chili sauce and a squeeze of lime juice. After breakfast, I still felt the need for a bit more caffeine, so I went to an espresso bar for a shot. Is this a great country or what?
After breakfast I came back and used Skype to call Carole. Amy was visiting in South Colton, so I got to talk to her too. In fact, I got to see both Caroel and Amy because Carole has a little video camera on her Mac. Skype is awesome — it’s completely amazing to be able to see and speak in real time literally half-way around the world. The first time I was in VN a little over a decade ago, I had to go to a special telephone “station” to make a very expensive international call. When I was talking to Amy and Carole, I mentioned the copies of famous paintings turned out by local craftspeople for the tourist trade, some of them astonishingly bad. There is also a kind of hyper-department-store genre as well, in which the paintings are generic rather than being based on models [Here’s a slide show that includes some of the paintings and narrates my trip so far — I’ll be adding images as I go and I need to go back and put the Hong Kong airport images in, too.] One wonders what Plato, so afraid of copies, the copy always being inferior to the original, would have made of these paintings. They are certainly inferior by almost any standard, but interesting.
It stands to reason that hot weather cultures would be good at making refreshing cold drinks, but the Vietnamese are real artists. Before my lunch today, I had an iced coffee — a double shot of espresso, which is served in a tall glass of ice with sugar syrup in a little pitcher on the side for sweetening to taste. And with my lunch I had lime juice frothed up with crushed ice and just enough sugar to take the edge off.
I guess I could have begun counting from the final day of classes last semester, but today is the first day I would have gone into the classroom had I been teaching, so this feels like the first official day of my sabbatical. Have I said that I am wildly grateful for such a luxury? If I haven’t, I am. At a time when many of my fellow citizens are losing their jobs, don’t have health insurance, lack adequate housing, etc., to be paid to sit home & think feels almost immoral. Perhaps that’s an old streak of Protestantism coming to the surface; if so, it’s a reminder that Protestantism was originally about social justice and individual dignity / responsibility. The best way I can see to redeem — don’t you love how the religious vocabulary emerges? — my time is to make effective use of it. So far, this has been a pretty lazy winter break: I’ve done a lot of reading, but dropped studying Vietnamese; I wrote a couple of stories, but haven’t looked at any of my poems in weeks; I’ve shoveled a good deal of snow, but I have been very lazy in the kitchen, falling into auto-cook mode most of the time.
I’m going to try to blog regularly during the sabbatical, mostly as a form of self-discipline & self-reflection. I’m not oing to make any foolhardy commitments to post something every day, but that will be my goal, even if it’s just a squib or a report on local bird life or what I cooked for dinner. With luck, there will also be more substantial bits as well. Anyway, it’s cold & snowy this morning & I probably won’t go farther afield today than the post office (though Carole is heading off to work in a few minutes), so the weather is cooperating: no excuse but to get some real work done.
This report from CNN on newly discovered species in the Mekong River basin is really quite amazing. I would love to see a Laotian rock rat next spring when I go to the delta, but I have no desire to eat one. The consumption of exotic animals — because they are exotic — was one of my biggest clashes of values with Vietnamese culture when I lived there. That, and a certain disdane for the suffering of all animals, really got to me. And I found it strange, too, in a Buddhist country. Buddhism’s doctrine that the world is defined by suffering has two sides: compassion and indifference. Over the course of their history the Vietnamese have had to sometimes eak out a living off of a parsimonious & capricious nature, which has led them to take a catholic view of what and what is not appropriate for eating. When you’re hungry, that coconut grub might look pretty tasty. I’m not an anthropologist, but it seems to me that there must be some symbolic process through with a food originally eaten for survival becomes a food of particularly high status, especially when times are more lavish.
I don’t know much about Indian food other than that I like to eat it; I’ve had a couple of Indian cookbooks for a while, but only this year began really trying to cook from them. Saturday night, I made Kashmiri style lamb kabobs in curry, potato raita (which I had never heard of until I found it in the back of the cookbook), snap peas cooked in a little ghee with sesame seeds, & chapati. Served with a little salad of cucumbers and coriander. This was the first whole Indian meal I’ve made — previously, I had just made individual dishes, usually a curry. Came out very nicely. Amy contributed a cherry pie for desert: not Indian, but excellent — the sweetness after the mild heat of the curry was lovely. We drank a couple of bottle of Riesling with the meal. All the recipes came from Camellia Panjabi’s Great Curries of India, a beautifully produced & well-written book with a lot of color photos & very good background information on the food & ingredients.