Falafel in Barcelona

It’s about seven in the evening when Hubby and I step down from the sleek, soundproof, vacuum-sealed fast train from Madrid into the whirling bustle of the station platform in Barcelona. We are jarred by the transition from the smooth gliding whoosh of the train over tracks to the cacophony of distorted Spanish coming over the loudspeakers mixed with the flamenco tempo of Spaniards hurrying towards exits, connecting trains, and embraces of loved ones greeting them. It is a heady aural cocktail.

Barcelona is the final stop in our two-week Spanish honeymoon. Our trip has been filled with Moorish castles, frigidly clear blue skies, intricate tapestries of royal gardens, and the ever-present orange trees glowing with fruit. We have craned our necks to see soaring Catholic cathedrals, we have dissected snowy olive orchards in trains, slipped down freezing city streets and found refuge in warm cocoons of world-class art museums. We are tired, dazed, and experiencing a bit of sensory overload at the wealth of experiences to which Spain has treated us.  We are almost numb to the magic of the journey by now, and are caught up in the mundane timetable of travel.

After depositing our meager gear at the apartment we rented, we decide it’s time to eat, and go off in search of vittles down Las Ramblas. By this time, we have had more than our fair share of bocadillos, the ubiquitous ham sandwich that haunts every food stand in train stations, department stores, museums and street corner.  No more bocadillos for me.

A few blocks down Las Ramblas, we spot a falafel shop.

Now, Hubby and I have some criteria when it comes to deciding where to eat. We look for places that are clean, but not sterile, meaning there should be a little bit of disorder to the place. Somewhat tacky interior decoration is always a plus. Food we can’t get on an everyday basis usually gets our vote. We judge places by the spice factor, eschewing the more common meat and potatoes if we can choose “exotic fare” like lamb and cous cous instead. And of course, we look at who is actually dining in the restaurant already.  Does it look like a tourist hang out?  Or does it seem like more of an everyday joint that residents patronize?

This little falafel restaurant seems to qualify as the latter. Plus, I’m hungry and grouchy, and so we go in.

The gentleman behind the counter is a bit surprised to see us, but hands us a laminated menu with pictures. We point to what we would like to have and he obliges.

We sit down with our booty and eat. It’s delicious; hot, a touch greasy with lots of spices and flavor oozing through. There are a variety of sauces to douse the falafel in and Hubby uses Every Single One. It’s the perfect first meal in Barcelona. Unpretentious, filling, and welcoming.

As we eat, a couple of gentlemen at the next table watch us. They listen in on our conversation and look a bit confused. Finally, one of the men comes up to us and asks us politely in perfect English from where we hail. We tell him Seattle, and suddenly he understands why we are speaking English.

His face brightens up and he tells us he’s from Morocco, but he got his masters in America. He goes on to say how he started school in Boston, and then left because he found the people there to be too stern for his liking and the winters too forbidding for his tastes.

He tells us he moved to Phoenix and finished his degree at Arizona State University.

I look at him carefully, and ask WHEN was he there.

It turns out he was there at the same time I was.

We look at each other in astonishment, and then we start to laugh. It seems impossible, yet it has happened. Two independently-spinning circles have actually intersected. This is the stuff of winning lottery tickets. This is like walking through a rain shower while the sun paints a rainbow at our feet. We chuckle and talk a bit more about life, coincidence, and the weather. Our conversation is wreathed in the goodwill of people who have nothing in common and yet have something in common. Hubby and I finish our dinner, say goodnight, and return to our apartment.

As we meander back up Las Ramblas, we hold hands and bask in the afterglow of a good meal and the fact that a dinky falafel shop has been the convergence point for two unrelated humans. There’s something wonderful about it; there’s something magical about it. It seems fitting that it would happen in Spain.

 

Mr. Bright Eyes

In another life, I was a flight attendant. Fresh out of college, prim and proper in my navy blue uniform, working puddle-jumpers from Atlanta and back. Oh 25, how much fun you were!

One flight in particular stands out in my memory. It must have been March, because Spring Break is pulsing like a loud club beat and flight are full of kids eager to dance.

On this flight, as we push back from the gate, I stand at the front of the coach cabin, doing the safety demonstration. (Yes, Virginia, there is no video equipment aboard a 727.  You do know what a 727 is, right?)

In the front row sits a young college gentleman.  He and his companions are in high spirits, ready to head to the beach and blow off some pent-up energy. I finish the demo with no incident and get ready to start my safety check walk down the cabin to the rear jump seat for take-off.

Except Mr. Bright Eyes has a question for me.  He holds both hands aloft, and asks me loudly, “Miss, could you help me fasten my seat belt?” with an faux innocent tone in his voice and a lewd twinkle in his eyes.

His friends guffaw, pound the back of his seat, elbow him in complicity. The three rows around him fall silent, waiting to see what I will do.

I look at hims square in the eye and say the following (smiling, but not with my eyes): “Of course! Take the male end of the buckle, and insert it into the female end. Do you understand how that works, or do you still need assistance?”

For a split second, the cabin is silent. And then the hooting and laughter erupts.  The staid business men in the row across the aisle chuckle into the ends of their ties. Mr. Bright Eyes’ friends cackle with glee. Mr. Bright Eyes himself turns crimson as the Tide and sinks as low as he can into his seat. I think if the floor had opened up under him, he would have gladly crawled into the baggage compartment.

I keep my face in Position Neutral, with Pleasant Smile plastered on my face and continue to look inquiringly at him.

He mumbles something like thanks, and I proceed down the aisle, maybe with a slight sashay.

The rest of taxi and take off goes without a hitch, and once we hit cruising altitude, it’s time to serve beverages.

Of COURSE I make sure to take the forward end of the drink trolley, and smile again sweetly (but without my eyes participating) at Mr. Bright Eyes and solicitously ask him if he requires a beverage. And if he would like an extra bag of nuts.

His seat belt is still fastened, and my revenge is complete.

And all within regulation.

 

Shikata Ga Nai

Things transform in translation just as light mutates as it passes through a prism. What appears to be a unified band of energy is dissected, so that each individual wavelength can shine and be seen for its own beauty.

In the same way, culture alters as it passes through the prism of generations. It morphs into something new as a wave of immigrants takes root in fresh soil. As we transplant and reinvent ourselves, we gain a new vantage point and acquire a new view.

So it is for me with the phrase shikata ga nai.

I have heard this for as long as I can remember; it was uttered as a sigh of defeat by my grandparents. It was muttered as muted defiance, it was whispered as a prayer for help, it was cried in grief. It signaled silent long-enduring suffering.

It means, roughly, “it can’t be helped” or “there’s nothing for it”. You pick up your burden and shoulder on through the pain. Sometimes it is a statement of resignation, other times it is a comforting blanket to shelter you. Call it fate if you will. It is always there in the background and it permeates your thinking.

If there’s one thing I have taken away from being raised as a Japanese-American, it’s that unity is Everything. Unity equals harmony. Harmony equals good. Don’t cause waves, don’t make ripples, and always think of the greater good. You as an individual are less important than the whole of society. You are a tiny photon in the Big Ray of Light. You practice shikata ga nai because your ancestors did, and it is part of your life philosophy.

That belief, that mantra was poured down on me like a beam of white light. It was one of those powerful spotlights, cutting through the night sky, guiding us back to the fold, the central tenet of gaman or perseverance. It hid nothing, it sheltered nothing. In its stark clarity, we could do nothing but huddle together and endure. Just as the sun at noon casts no shadow, there was no dark corner to hide and seek respite. Shikata ga nai: the spirit battening down its hatches, trying to outlast the storm.

It served me well. For awhile.

And then I moved away and everything changed. My accent, my confidence, my viewpoint, my world.

I stopped following the proscribed sine wave for colorless light. I started developing prisms and angles in my mind. I poured concentrated potent beliefs like shikata ga nai through them, and instead of it emerging intact like a solid monolith, this mindset shattered into a thousand gorgeous colors. I was blinded by its beauty, astonished by the possibilities.

Solid unassailable interpretation became multi-hued nuances. One definition broke down into multiple variations on a theme, and became subject to life experiences and human whim. My individual spirit stepped out of the noon sun and cast my unique shadow in the sand. I stopped assuming and started thinking. I started to be ME.

I began to see shikata ga nai not as a chant to keep my spirit from despairing. Yes, it was still that, but it became so much more. It stopped being the chain that held me to my culture, and started to be the touchstone that reminded me of where I come from and, more importantly, what I could bear. It changed from resignation to resolution.

It now means that there is nothing for it BUT to move forward in the face of danger and hardship. I may not be able to change the circumstances, but I can dig in, stand my ground, concede gracefully when I need to, fight like the devil when I know it’s right. There is no reverse. Shikata ga nai.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sophia

It’s almost ten in the morning. I wonder if Sophia is watching out the window for me, asking herself why I’m late.

Sophia is our resident ghost. She’s a playful spirit, full of gentle mischief. She’s a touch particular, likes all the coffee mug handles facing to the right, and the potted plants angled in a certain direction. She likes to talk to us and say hello, although only certain staff members can hear her. Sometimes she announces her arrival in a cloud of Pine-Sol, other times by opening locked doors so the alarm system chimes. She likes to hide things from us, move things just slightly to see if we notice.

I think she was happy with the life we brought to that corner. I think she liked letting us know she was there.

Now her footfalls echo in an empty shell.

The alarm remains silent, no jingle early in the morning to let her know I’m there and about to sprint through the restaurant, dodging the obstacle course of tables and chairs to reach the panel on the other end of the room to turn off the system. Did she time me every day, to see if I got faster at it?

After I turned off the alarm and turned on the lights, I would greet her, ask her how her night was, implore her to not do anything to scare the guests or staff.

But not today. Or tomorrow…..or ever. Not from me.

She won’t get to watch the daily real life soap opera of restaurant drama as our characters move onstage in staccato tempo to beat the twelve noon starting bell. She won’t see us play restaurant dodge-ball, as we move at rapid pace in tight quarters without ever bumping into each other, yelling “behind” and “sharp” all the way. She won’t mark the days of the week by which deliveryman shows up. She’ll miss the way our faces light up as we greet regulars, ask them if they’re getting “the usual”.

No more aromas of baking bread, simmering sauces and soups, cheese, basil and garlic. No background humming of refrigerator compressors, no whooshing of the dish machine, no startling kerthunk of ice cubes falling in the ice machine. No hissing of steam as we make lattes, no more heady shots of coffee perfuming the air.

All is sterile and quiet. Bloodless. Lifeless. Joyless.

I wonder if she’s cold, with no heat from the ovens and stove. Does she shiver, with no warmth radiating from the compressors and the espresso machine?

Is she bored, now that she can no longer eavesdrop on the conversations and jokes we shared amongst ourselves. Does she long to hear us try to out-pun each other? Does she crave the sound of our squealing when we see a cute puppy go by, or share stupidly adorable animal videos with each other?

Did she laugh with us? Did she cry with us? Did she giggle every time a furry four-legged neighbor begged for a meatball from us?

“I’m sorry,” I told her, when I left the kitchen for the last time. “I tried, but I need to move on, close this door. I hope you understand.”

Maybe Sophia exists, maybe we made her up because we need to explain things that had no discernible explanation.

No matter. There was a real spirit in that little restaurant, an animated sense of being.  It emanated from all of us; it sparked from all of our minds. It was the energy that we put into it, good and bad. It was the intent we had, our driving purpose. It was the collective effort to do what we believed was CORRECT, not always easiest.

And now it’s time to move on, build up in another direction. I hope Sophia won’t be lonely for too long. And that the new residents will place the coffee mugs with the handles facing RIGHT.

 

 

 

Betsy

From across the grocery store, her eyes locked onto mine.

I’ll call her Betsy.

There I was, standing by my little butane burner, in a schwanky grocery store, cooking gnocchi samples and handing them out to shoppers as they hurried on past me.

She looked shyly at me, then looked down.  I marked her progress as she stopped at the various displays, taking a circuitous route to where I was.  First the deli case, then the mounds of gorgeously-arrayed fruits and vegetables.  Past the stands of crackers, cupcakes, cookies.  Sashaying by the cheese case.  Step by delicious step, she worked her way over to me.  It was an epicurean obstacle course.

She  kept trying to look disinterested, casual, unhurried, but her feet carried her closer and closer. Feet don’t lie.

Betsy looked like a woman from another era.  Properly dressed, she wouldn’t dream of going to the grocery store in sweats and a ratty tee shirt. She sported a pillbox hat, and looked more like she was ready for church than the Friday evening mosh pit of a grocery store.

She finally approached me and timidly asked what I was cooking.  I asked her if she would like to try a sample.  She told me she was afraid, but she still had a twinkle in her eye.

I smiled at her, told her it was potatoes, eggs and flour, nothing too unusual.

“I like potatoes!” she said enthusiastically.  And so she tried one.

She loved it.

She asked where she could find more.  I offered her my arm, and I escorted her to the aisle where the gnocchi live.

We chatted and she shared with me how she’s getting braver about trying foods unfamiliar to her, how she ventures out and samples things at the deli she’s never had before. We laughed about, oh, I can’t even remember, probably the little absurdities of life.

My conversation with “Betsy” lasted all of maybe five minutes.

But there was so much unspoken dialogue in those 300 seconds.  Betsy is an African-American woman who carries herself like she’s waiting for someone to tell her no.  She has that cautious aura of someone who has had their hands slapped away from the cookie jar one too many times, and now afraid to even ask for just a crumb.

As for me, I’m  trying to shed the restraints of my collective ancestry, the ones that tells me women should be subservient, and that I should make a good marriage and have kids because I will need them to take care of me when I get older.

Two women, from two minorities, from two different generations, bonding over food neither of us grew up with.

It was quietly awesome.

There has been so much ugliness this week, and I fear it will only get worse.

So I would like to share with you my beautiful five minutes with Betsy. Because it matters.

 

 

The Picture in the Corner

I have a black and white copy of this photo,  the monotones mute the drama taking place in this picture. It sits quietly in my restaurant, and whispers to get your attention.

It’s a picture of a volcano erupting.  Specifically, it catches the 1959 eruption of Kilauea, in Kapoho. In the foreground is a row of buildings, the kind you might find in any sugar cane town in rural Hawaii. On one of the buildings is a sign that reads, “Y Nakamura Store”.

It was my grandfather’s store, a general store where there was a back table for the men of the town to pull up with a beer or two, play a hand of cards and discuss the latest current events, such as recently granted statehood to Hawaii.  It was where the women congregated to get household supplies, chat each other up, and reaffirm the social hierarchy of their clan.

Kapoho was like any other plantation town scattered along the dirt and macadam roads of this place. Everyone knew everyone else. Kids that misbehaved didn’t get away with it for long, as the news traveled along the invisible telegraph wires strung up between houses. Racially divided by ethnic origin, and yet homogeneously Hawaiian in food, spirit and culture, it, like every other plantation town, was the petri dish for the New Hawaiian Blend. Places like this helped blur the lines between each immigration wave that washed ashore here, until, like grains of sand, they became part of that cultural beachhead. Individual, yet integral to a greater whole.

Madame Pele, our jealous Fire Goddess, reclaimed that land that Kapoho occupied, leaving untouched my grandfather’s store. So much beauty, so much destruction living together in such close proximity.

Did Madame Pele bless my grandfather by sparing his store, or did she curse him, by taking away his customer base? Is the glass half empty or is the glass half full?

My grandfather, being resourceful, and probably more thrifty than anything else, took the lumber from his now-vacant store and used it to rebuild his home, a few miles down a pothole-infested dirt road. Curse or blessing, he was determined to live near the ocean, near the town where he grew up. Madame Pele may have tried to block the way, but he viewed it as a speed bump, an opportunity to turn in another direction.

Nothing remained of the town or store, except the sign.  For years, we would drive by the spot on our way to Grandmother’s House, and see the Y Nakamura Store sign, bent and abandoned on a cinder bulwark in the middle of a lava desert. We would beg my father to retell us the story again, of how the volcano erupted in someone’s cucumber field, or was it a papaya plantation?  The tale has morphed as the years have passed, like an old tapestry, with some new stitches sewn in, some old ones unraveling.

I don’t know what happened to that sign.  It may have been scavenged, it may be have sold.  One day, it was simply no longer there.

About ten years ago, I went back to Kapoho, to find the spot where the store once stood, where the sign lay as a tired guardian to a piece of our personal history.  I couldn’t find it.  Nature, in her rampantly tropical way, had covered the place with new growth. I had lost the compass to my childhood memories, everything covered in vines and sapling trees.  Even the pitted dirt road that lead to my grandfather’s house by the ocean was now gated off, part of a sequestered exclusive beach community. The bumpy road under an arbor canopy of trees that brought to mind evil forests in fairy tales was now a smooth paved affair that no longer tortured a car’s suspension or caused your rib cage to jostle into your chin if you drove faster than ten miles an hour down it.

It, like me, had grown up.

I keep this picture in my restaurant now, to remind myself of where I came from, to reassure myself that no matter where I am going and the obstacles I face, there is always another path to take, things grow back and curses can be blessings.

I wonder if my grandfather sees this picture, sees me. I hope so.

 

 

 

An Ice Cream Cone and a Glass of Water

He’s not the typical customer on the Hill.

No man bun, no plaid flannel shirt. No shorts, hiking boots and “bro” tank for him. His hair is naturally gray, his mustache neatly trimmed.

He’s probably seen about seven decades on this earth, and each one has written a story on his face, in the lines on his hands. These stories whisper through the twinkle in his eye.

It’s a twinkle tempered with a touch a melancholia. I don’t know what he’s lost recently, but I feel the emptiness as we talk. He seems lonely, resigned.

He’s kind, sweet and polite. He wants just one small scoop of ice cream, he tells me, as he shifts his unwieldy bag of groceries.

He pays, asks for a glass of water. I gladly oblige.

Thirty minutes later, a mere breath in the span of his years here on Earth, he gets up to leave. He thanks me for the water and the delicious “gelato”, which he pronounces with an Italian of a flair as he can muster.

I don’t know his name. I don’t know if I’ll see him again.

But his untold story stays with me; the human connection contained in a transaction of an  ice cream cone and a glass of water.

 

Marshmallows

Hearts are like marshmallows.

Soft, uniform in shape, a bit bland in color. Innocuous. They hide their sweetness under a nondescript exterior. Simple in ingredients, yet a wonder to behold.

Hearts are like marshmallows.

Easily pierced and crushed. Fragile. Durable. Resilient.

Hearts are like marshmallows.

They burn easily. Their edges char. They get singed and catch fire. They melt and get gooey.

Hearts are like marshmallows.

Fire gives them character, tempers their cloying sweetness with depth and a touch of bitter. Heat makes them malleable, squishable, perfect partners for chocolate and crackers, or the perfect binder for crispy rice cereal.

Fire can also incinerate them.

Hearts are like marshmallows.

They need a little heat to bring out their best.

The Year of the Spiral Perm

I don’t remember the exact year I first visited Rome, so instead I’ll call it The Year of The Big Hair.

I was in my mid-twenties, with The Most Awesome Spiral Perm Ever! Seriously, it took my stylist FOUR, count ’em, F O U R (!) FOUR hours to get all those pesky rollers in my hair.  Looking back, with my short stature, I must have looked like I was ready to topple over, what with all the hair coiling on itself like a Medusa ‘do gone bad.

It was August in Rome. It was hot in Rome. It was humid in Rome.

But I digress.

Rome, like my hair, loomed larger than life.  Words can describe it, photos can show proof of it, but you have to see it writ large across your retinas to fully grasp how grand it is.  I am, of course, talking about the city.

I was on a twenty-four hour layover (my days as a flight attendant) so it was off to the races! The Colosseum! The Trevi Fountain! The Forum! The Pantheon!  Run run run, with my hair streaming behind me like a magical super hero cape. (This was, of course, before Edna Mode’s sage advice of NO CAPES!)

I might have had gelato more than once. I might have had gelato more than thrice. Did I mention it was hot? At some point, the itinerary morphed into a gelato tour punctuated with a few Roman ruins.

Things that stuck in my mind, and maybe in my hair as well:

1.) The grandeur of the Colosseum. So massive, so haunted with history. Lives spent there like cheap pennies to be tossed at a beggar. The roar of chariots, wild animals, the chanting crowds, the cries of gladiators; all  are subdue echos now in the stone corridors.

2.) The Forum. Where the original Toga Party was held. Where history was shaped and legends made. Where emperors and senators once walked, cats now recline in indolence and lassitude.

3.) The Trevi Fountain. I did not expect it to be so fancy. I mean, I didn’t think it was going to be like a water fountain in the halls of my elementary school, but I didn’t think it would be so….curlicue and grandiose….like my hair. Whoa.

After a day of capering through the streets and gawping at the antipasti buffet at dinner, I fell asleep that night to marble columns decorated with stray kitty cats dancing in my head.

The next day, up up up went the hair, restrained and sprayed into submission. Back in uniform, back to the plane, back to the States.

Roman traffic would have to be distracted by something other than The Biggest Hair Ever. The ghosts of the Eternal City returned to silently  haunting their ruins. The uneven cobblestones prepared for another day of tripping up unsuspecting tourists.

But as if caught by a tangled fishing net, Roman memories entwined in my mind and hair. Shellacked into place. Pinned and twisted into strands of my coif.

I no longer have the Big Hair, but the memories? They’re eternal.

 

 

I’ve Met You Before

I see you. I recognize you. I know who you are.

You’ve taken many guises; your masque is never the same. But once you peel away that faux smile, your true character is revealed.

I’ve dated you, I’ve been your lover, your friend.  I’ve studied with you.  I’ve been your employee, your boss, your confidant and your enemy.

I’ve seen you in a million places, around the world. I am always surprised when I run into you, but why, I don’t know.

You’re a Bully.

Time was when you had to be physically there to harass me. On the playground, at school, during a dinner date,  at the workplace…… it didn’t really matter where. The key was, you had to, in some ways, be brave enough to actually intimidate me in person, put a face to your shenanigans. You had to own it. I guess looking back, you had some sort of courage, however insipid it was.

Now, you can curl up comfortably at home and fire away from the safety of your keyboard.  You don’t have to be there to see my reaction when I read your attack. You don’t have to be honorable enough to tell me to my face why you’re being petulant, childish, pejorative or just plain mad. You certainly don’t have to give me the chance to defend myself, apologize, talk it out or try to make it better.

And thanks to the wonder of technology, your audience is now worldwide, not limited to the gang of kids clustered around us in the playground. With the click of a button, you can wound me, my family, my friends, my business, and most importantly, my soul.  You don’t even have to watch me bleed out or cry. You certainly won’t be there to face any repercussions or help me glue myself back together again.

You’ve won.

Almost.

The one thing you forget is that your offensive tells me more about you than it tells the world about me. You reveal your true self, and it’s not pretty. You know deep down you’re being an arse. You are deliberately being unkind, and the stink of it permeates your entire argument.  Nothing can mask that.

How does your victory feel now? Because I can hear  your self-doubt echoing through the hollowness of it.

Keep on doing what you’re doing.  I’ll be here, head down, working hard, evolving into a better person. You? Your choice. I have better things to do. Peace out.