Travelogue: A Snow Day in Takayama, Japan (#SnowBigDeal)

After all the ear-piercing emergency alerts and subway shutdowns and class cancellations, Juno never hit us. We woke on Tuesday morning expecting to see white white white outside the windows, but there was only the young, friendly Russian courier wearing his regular parka and boots, shoveling out the last inch of slush from the cement front patio of Tom’s building. Beyond that, there were a few greying snowbanks and more slush.  Continue reading “Travelogue: A Snow Day in Takayama, Japan (#SnowBigDeal)”

Before Christmas, In Paris

We planned very little to do in Paris except eat and drink. Ducks confit and magritte, wine, pastries, chocolate, steaks and more pastries. More wine. The occasional sliced fruit or glazed berry that came glistening atop whatever tarts caught my eye. It was Paris. Even if we died from heart attacks, they would be the most delicious heart attacks in the world.
Continue reading “Before Christmas, In Paris”

Travelogue: London Memories

Lost souls please go to Nunhead

This time last year, I was readying to visit Tom in London a second time. The plan was to spend a weekend in Cambridge, return to London and rendezvous with some friends who were also visiting the city, attend Tom’s raucous company holiday party and then, the morning after and presumably hungover, board the Eurostar to spend two gluttonous days in Paris before heading back to London to pack and move Tom back to New York.  

I packed, among other necessities, a white party dress dress, a pair of velvet heels, and a leopard coat. I thought Tom liked the leopard coat because I had sent him a photo of it and he had replied, “Hot.” Over text message, I could see neither a look of disgust nor hear a groan. 

So I thought, “Yeah, super hot.”

I landed at 7AM on the morning of Friday, December 6th and met, at the customs border, a surly, sleep-deprived woman who could be classified as “matronly” in the worst way possible, and “bitchy” in its usual way. Her hair was thinning and her skin, sallow and splotchy, sagged like the elbow patches of her dumpy blue sweater uniform. I wondered how many cigarettes she smoked during her infrequent breaks and how often she thought of shooting herself. Or cheery young foreigners like myself, who came with the expectation to have as much fun as possible. I smiled at her as I always smile to such personnel. I read in a magazine that sometimes smiles are infectious and she looked like she needed one. However, my smile bounced off her soulless eyes and she remained dour. She dully asked how many days I was staying.

“Ten,” I said. 

“What are you here for?” 

“Visiting a friend.” 

“Male, female?” 

She nodded as she paged languidly through my passport, yawned. Perhaps she found it boring – I had renewed my passport prior to starting school in New York and had just one stamp in it, from my first visit to London back in October. 

“How did you meet him?” 

“We met in New York.” 

She stopped turning the pages and looked up at me. Her expression grew annoyed, then weary, like a haggard schoolteacher having caught her student in a lie.

“So he’s a boyfriend, then?” 

“Um…” I thought back to a half a month before, when Tom and I had defined the relationship but had also not said expressly, the terms “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” 

“…I guess?” I started to explain that we were dating and we hadn’t really ever said those words, and I cringed as I spoke, part of my consciousness stepping out from my body and watching me explain a rather simple but in the same way complicated situation to a woman who honestly had no business but who seemed at once to care too much and too little. She didn’t have time for incoherent explanations, thank god. 

“Look, he’s your boyfriend,” she snapped, “So just say ‘boyfriend’ and not ‘friend.'” She manhandled my passport, stamping it with a withering look and then waved me off.

A few feet past her cell there was a massive, brightly lit banner that said, “Welcome to London!” and showcased many a smiling Brit. Not surprisingly, my customs officer was not among them.
The view from Tom’s window. 

Two hours later I was at the corner of Curtain Road and Old St., where Tom’s corporate apartment was located. We stood across the street from each other for a few moments, waiting black London cabs and red double-deckers roll by. I smiled between each vehicle. Tom waved to me from across the street. I waved back, the hem of my leopard coat billowing in the brisk London air. The light changed and he walked over. I thought he was smiling but as he came closer, saw it was a pained expression with a smile plastered on.  

“What are you wearing,” he said.  

I was confused. Hadn’t he said it was “hot?” 

“You don’t like it?”

“You look like you escaped from the jungle.” 

I was thankful to have brought along another coat in a much more subdued black. But still, I liked the leopard and felt that he should know. 

“Okay so what? If I wear it you won’t walk with me?”

“Oh I’ll walk with you,” Tom said, taking my suitcase, “Right into a coat store.”
Sure that’s all they took? 

Photo Diary of 2013, Part 1

 At the end of each year, I go through my photos. This is what you do when you have a bad memory. I click through the folders, labeled by events or by season (big events – weddings, holiday parties, trips, etc., – have their own folders, while seasons, paired with a specific location, e.g. “Fall in New York” stand alone to represent the zeitgeist of the time). This year (and hopefully each year after), I’ve decided to share. It’s an effective way to remind myself of the people and places that matter and of that familiar paradox: how long a year is! And, how very very short.

Continue reading “Photo Diary of 2013, Part 1”

Travelogue: Photos of Jane Austen’s Bath

We arrived in Bath at 7PM. The sun had gone down and it seemed to be much later than it was. There was a slight drizzle, in keeping with the forecast which said it would rain much of the time, but I did not mind the rain. It seemed right that it should rain in Bath – the rain would dampen the town and intensify the color of things. Greens would be greener. The roads darker, the cobblestones shinier (and more slippery).

Continue reading “Travelogue: Photos of Jane Austen’s Bath”

Calling Home from a London Pub

In London, this past week, I visited POI for a second time. On my second night there – perhaps it was my third, I can’t remember – it occurred to me I ought to call my parents. We were on the second floor of a pub in Soho when the thought occurred and I told POI that I’d be back. He handed me his work phone, saying the signal was better, and I took it downstairs, past the bar which was, at 10PM, packed with tall, well-dressed British men. In the States I would have assumed they’d all just come from work, but it was a Saturday night and they seemed to just be dressed that way, regardless. It had been overly warm in the pub and I did not bring my coat with me, finding the cool air outside refreshing. I wondered what I would say to my parents as I dialed. My father picked up, as my mother was teaching her Saturday morning Chinese classes.

“How is it?” my father asked.

“Good,” I said, “We’re out with his friends right now. I just thought I’d say hello. I haven’t called in a while.”

“Well, we’re doing fine too,” he said, and then did the thing he always did when I asked about their weekend plans, which was list all their upcoming dinner engagements. It was going to be a busy weekend for them as well. He listed the usual suspects and the usual restaurants. Same old same old, he said, though I knew he looked forward to it.

POI and I were headed to Cambridge the next morning, and I told my father as much.

“Ah,” he said, “Well. Didn’t you want to study there at some point?”

I laughed. It was typical that he would remember something like this. Every elite school I had ever even just vaguely remarked about wanting to study at, he remembered: Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Brown, “Yeah, and I still do…just not sure what.”

“Oh please, please,” he said jokingly, “One degree at a time. Finish the one you’re working on now.”

“I know,” I said. A group of young, drunk teenagers walked by, some stumbling more than others. They laughed loudly just as they were walking by.

“Are you at a party?” my father asked.

“Outside a bar,” I said, “We’re heading over to karaoke soon.”

“They karaoke over there in England?” he said, “You went all the way to England to karaoke?”

“More or less.”

Other photos from that night are expectedly blurry.

On the curb next to me, three young Chinese people stood staring at their smart-phones, trying to make Karaoke plans of their own. They heard me speaking Chinese and took turns stealing glances in my direction. I smiled. Had they called their parents yet? I wondered what they were studying.

“Well,” my father said, “Enjoy yourself, I suppose.”

“I know, I will,” I looked up to the steamed windows of the second floor, where POI and his friends,- three Asian Americans and two Italians chemistry students – stood chatting around tall pints. I told my father goodbye and to not miss me too much.

“And you try to miss us a little more,” he said, “But thanks for calling.”

“No problem.”

“Oh,” something occurred to him.


“Write something,” he said.


“Write something,” he said, “About your time there. About Cambridge or London or England or whatever it is you’re going to do. And share it with me. I should like to know even though I still think the words on that website of yours are too damned small.”

I nodded slowly, taking in the scene before me on the street on a corner in Soho square, thinking about the people upstairs, all of whom I’d just met. I thought too about the songs I was about to sing in a small, dark room. Inside the pub, one of POI’s best friends in London was buying shots of tequila at the bar. Somewhere down the road, friends of friends were making their way out of the Tube to meet us. More shots waited at another bar. Poorly performed covers of Miley Cyrus. U2 and Taylor Swift and Backstreet Boys. Rent.

I would write, I told him.

We hung up and I went back inside, running into POI’s friend at the bar. He handed me two shot glasses and a small plate of lime wedges.

“Can you handle all that?” he said, “One of them is yours.”

I nodded, and carefully ascended the narrow stairs, spilling just a single drop of Jose Cuervo on my left hand. I was aware that I wouldn’t write anything that night. Or the night after. I wouldn’t write anything for the next two weeks.

A Saturday Afternoon in Oxford (With an Australian)

I’ve definitely seen uglier houses. Atalia’s room is the top right window. (Atalia, hopefully I did not just invite random cyber stalkers to your window. If I do, I hope they sing you sonnets).  

A month before I arrived, POI suggested we take a weekend trip from London.

“Somewhere not too far from the city,” he said, “We can go by train or car.” 
I nodded enthusiastically into the phone – we had recently just “upgraded” from texting – and a few moments later thought it wise to say aloud, “Yes, yes, I’d love that.”

We batted around a few ideas – Southampton, the Lake District, until POI solicited ideas from actual British people – namely, a talkative teller at the HSBC near his office.  
Baththe teller said with an air of national authority. It was a wonderful town (though the website insists it is the city of Bath): charming, quaint, historic and filled with cozy romantic restaurants. During the day, there were wonderful cobble-stoned streets and quiet parks to stroll through. And of course the actual Roman baths, which one did not use anymore, thanks to a flesh-eating brain virus an unfortunate bather contracted in the seventies, but could safely explore while fully dressed alongside hundreds of school children on field trips.
POI wondered if I’d be interested in watching a Rugby double-header. 
“Oh I’m quite certain the young lady you’re seeing would certainly not like that,” the teller advised. POI did not describe her to me but his impression of her seemed spot on. And she was spot on. One rugby match, perhaps. A double-header? I’d rather not. 
POI began to plan our weekend getaway and I consulted a map. I had a good friend from community college who was just starting her Master’s in English Literature at Oxford. We had taken one required English class together and became fast friends, mostly because we saw each other as we saw ourselves: not idiots. Also, she was Australian and I am in general, attracted to that sort of thing (foreignness). 
The map indicated that Oxford was somewhat on the way and it seemed almost rude not to drop by. I mentioned it to POI. He was game. He had never seen Oxford. 
“We’ll drive,” he said, “It’ll give us more flexibility.  
On Saturday morning, we fetched the rental car – a black mini-mini van made by a brand neither of us had ever heard of- at Paddington Station and drove west from London towards Oxford. POI soon learned that I was terrible at giving directions. My navigating vocabulary consisted mostly of, “How far are we? Well…(squinting at Google maps), it’s kind of far, but like not really that far, so like…medium far?” but POI, thankfully, is a patient man and spent much of the drive laughing. And navigating himself. 
Eventually we arrived in Oxford right on time for a late lunch with Atalia, a strong, direct writer who had earlier via email, provided excellent directions of her own:  
We ended up arriving closer to 1:30PM-ish because I did not understand roundabouts. 
Oxford: Where religion and bicycles peacefully coexist, until your bicycle is stolen and not even God can help you recover it, no matter how vehemently you say his name in vain.   
Two community college success stories (until I am unemployed again) standing before Hertford Bridge, more commonly known as the Bridge of Sighs, though according to Wikipedia that is a misnomer. 

We strolled thirty minutes from Atalia’s residence onto campus, stomachs growling. POI had made breakfast that morning: two slices of toast, one smeared with butter and marmalade, the other with butter and marmite, which is his lifeblood and which, to give you an idea of the class of food it’s in, is marketed as a “food spread” with the motto “Love it or hate it.” To borrow a phrase from POI, I did not care for it. Breakfast was a sweet gesture, but paled in caloric comparison to how much I normally ate.

“Lunch, Atalia,” we reminded her, fearful of having to walk much more, “Lunch.” 
We arrived thankfully at the Kings Arms of Oxford only to snigger at the menu:

“See anything good?” “Traditional as opposed to…” “With mushy peas. Wonderful.” Eventually a young, naive-looking waitress explained in absolutely earnestness that they were meatballs. “What’s so funny?” she wanted to know. 
None of us, though all quite liberal, were in the mood for faggots. 
Bellies full with meat and potatoes, the tour recommenced.

POI and I wondering/marveling/ talking about Harry Potter within the Bodleian Library Quadrangle. I was certainly the only person wearing cheetah print jeans on campus. Thank you, cousin Michelle.  
The Radcliffe Camera, probably Oxford’s most recognizable building, was built from 1737-1749 in the English Palladian Style. FYI “camera” is the Latin word for “room.” And that’s about as Highbrow as this post will get. 
More bicycles and cobblestones en route to The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. 
Obviously this shot came first. I don’t backtrack. 
And this shot before last, of Atalia, our wonderful tour guide. There’s something tremendously refreshing about being guided around one England’s most English institutions by an Australian educated in America. 
The courtyard of the Queen’s College, where Atalia is studying. 
From another angle. POI had really wanted to take a photo standing in the middle but the girls on the path would not move. 
Mail for the students arrive not at their dormitories but at their colleges. That day, Atalia received a postcard from Mickey Mouse. 
Lunch in Oxford had turned into a leisurely four hour stroll. The sky began to darken and POI and I had to be on our way. Given my navigation skills and our diminishing phone batteries, driving on dark, unfamiliar roads seemed to be a bad idea. 
“One more spot!” Atalia said, “They filmed parts of Harry Potter there!” 
POI and I looked at each other. Time could always be made for Harry Potter. But unfortunately, because I had wanted to eat an ice cream on the way there, Christ’s Church college was closed by the time we arrived. I felt badly. 
 POI and I replay scenes from the movie in our heads, wondering how much trouble we’d get in if we broke in. 
But not too badly. 
Basically my expression for the entire trip. 
We walked back towards Atalia’s dormitory. Sometimes, I fell back to take a photograph. Sometimes, I watched them talk – POI and my Australian friend whom I’d met in the states some five years ago – on a sidewalk in Oxford. It was a strange and strangely familiar scene. 
Oxford work-study.
We’d barely pulled out of her driveway when Atalia texted me: 
I laughed, showing POI the message. 
He chuckled, shifting gears, “And she wasn’t so bad herself.”
Ding. Atalia texted again: “DON’T FUCK IT UP.” 
I snorted because I didn’t intend to. Though I was in danger of getting us wildly lost. Bath was still an hour and a half away and the light was fading fast. POI needed directions. It helped though, that we were heading where the sky glowed gold, gilding all that faced west. 

True story. 

London Travelogue: Photos of Borough Market

One of many entrances to Borough Market.

POI did not make it to lunch. He was held up at work and I, being of the understanding-and-generally-capable-of-entertaining-myself-especially-when-in-a-foreign-country-sort, made my way around Borough Market, tasting more cheese samples than I had appetite for.

She was very generous with the samples.
I couldn’t tell if these mushrooms were very expensive or not.
Wheat grass being turned into green water.
As opposed to old season game.
I truly regret not eating one – actually, all three – of these.
He was also very generous with the samples.
As opposed to the Not Posh At All Banger Boys on the other side of the street.
In case you forgot why you were at the market.
Gorgeous Friday afternoon light.
I took this photo to show how long the line was for Applebee’s takeaway. Applebee’s in London is quite different from Applebee’s in the US, which is essentially an institution for obesity.

When I was in danger of becoming ill on cheese and jam samples, I walked behind the market down Stoney Street and towards the river.

POI things it is incredibly creepy that I like to photograph children in school uniforms. Perhaps. But as you can see, I keep a safe distance.
Apparently this is where I was.
For those of you who follow me on Instagram: the original caption is probably still best: “British guy behind me: ‘Rihanna wrote a song about these.'”
Fashionable people getting ready for Friday after work/class drinks.
“Are they real?”

POI eventually arrived at 3:30PM. He had apologized profusely throughout the day, pushing lunch back until it was clear he would not make any hour deemed appropriate for lunch. I was not angry – it seemed reasonable that POI do well at his job. Logistically, it was the reason I was able to visit. Back in New York POI had been the most punctual of men while I, normally a punctual woman, was late to every single date.

“The trains,” I would say, breathless from having jogged from the subway station, “I just…don’t understand them” (when in fact I suddenly turn into a sloth whenever it’s time to leave the apartment).

“That’s alright,” POI would say, “You’ll figure them out soon enough.”

He arrived, grinning. Work was over and done with; the weekend could now begin.

He clapped his hands together. He had not had time for lunch and was hungry.

“Let’s go find me a grilled cheese sandwich.”

A blurry photo, but suffice it to say it was the mother of all grilled cheese sandwiches. Seeing it, I conveniently forgot all the cheese samples I’d already had and took a huge bite.

And a beer. We went round the corner to The Rake, one of POI’s favorite pubs in the area, though he seems to like most pubs. There was a small outdoor area populated with colorful metal chairs and voluble, easy-going men who were anything but rakish. It was Friday afternoon and they had left any work-related worries behind at the office. Now it was time to have a pint.

We sat outside on a bench next to two men in suits. They sat opposite each other with their legs crossed and I could see their patterned socks. I could not decide if they were careful dressers or if men in London simply wore patterned socks. POI, in a fleece zip up and checkered shirt had other thoughts. He disappeared inside. The men in patterned socks talked shop, then went on to discuss their female colleagues, who had not been invited to the pub. I looked around – there were no women in the patio and only one girl inside the bar, but she seemed to be a student or someone on holiday. Women, it seemed, stayed later at the office. Even on a Friday.

POI returned holding a large pint for him and a half-pint for me.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Apple beer.”

“Like a cider?”

“I asked for cider,” he said, “but the bartender gave me a look and said they only served beers.”

I took a sip, “Tastes like cider.”

POI laughed, “Well, here, it’s an apple beer.” 

I produced the Lamington. He had sent me on a mission to find one while he was at work. POI is not so into sweets but he very much likes Lamingtons, an Australian dessert. At Borough Market, they are quite hard to find and I spent nearly twenty-minutes going from pastry tent to pastry tent, soliciting confused stares.

“A what?”

“A Lamington? It’s a….sweet thing?”

“A banana tart?”

And many such conversations. Finally, a Turkish man put down a tray of turkish delights and raised his arm slowly to point somewhere behind me. He nodded gravely like a prophet and in thickly accented English said, “There, that red tent. There you’ll find the Lamington.”

Big pint, half pint and Lamington (the unicorn of desserts in Borough Market).
We shared the Lamington, him taking much smaller bites than I. Our Friday afternoon began to unfold.
Soon, there would be drinks on the sidewalk with his coworkers – an international set from South Africa, Canada and New Zealand and a single, notable Brit named, incredibly, James Joyce. We would move indoors to another pub, where the Canadian, after getting the phone number of a young British woman, would return to our table and casually mention that he had a girlfriend.
“How long have you been dating?” I would ask.
“Three years,” the Canadian would say with a shrug.
The Brit named James Joyce would gasp and wonder if he ought to defend the honor of British women, because the Canadian had made it seem so easy. 
There would be a late dinner at POI’s favorite Indian Restaurant, just steps away from London Bridge, followed by a silent but satisfied bus ride back to Curtain Road. I would watch the city fly by from the second level windows of London’s famed double deckers and look forward to the days ahead. But mostly I would enjoy the ride back to Curtain Road, sitting side by side with this person of interest.