Author Archives: lisak

Rock On

Last night, the first two apprentices from our culinary training program at Project Feast graduated. It was the culmination of four months of pushing, pulling, coaxing on seemingly endless repeat.

Sixteen weeks of seeing the potential in someone, and then molding, urging and polishing to reveal the gem hidden underneath. Ninety days of faceting, carving, and buffing away the lack of confidence, fears and failures to bring out the shine obscured by all of that dross.

Let’s be real. I took the job because I needed it. Being a restaurant or hotel chef didn’t appeal to me, not this time around. I wanted to, I needed to find balance in my life. I had to learn that work is not everything, that down time is not a bad thing, that being idle every now and then is good for the soul, my soul.

So I took the job, with every intent of giving it my all, because if you don’t give it everything, why even bother picking up the ball? I had a litany of qualifications in my mind of why I was the perfect candidate. Truly, with all those years in the business, with all the myriad of jobs, experiences, adventures, success and failures (maybe THE most important thing), I was such a great fit for this position.

I WAS GOING TO CHANGE LIVES.

I didn’t quite expect to have my life changed. You see, everything that happened in Paragraph Two of this post happened to me.

People sometimes have this idea of helping refugees and immigrants. It’s lofty and gilded. They see themselves as generous souls reaching down to hoist someone up. And yes, we need people to care enough to extend a hand, to buy into the vision of benevolence and good deeds. Without kindness and compassion, nothing like this gets done.

What is invisible is the struggle, to be in the trenches daily with a group of people with varying levels of education, English comprehension, and work experiences. Add to the equation life trauma, prejudice, stereotypes, PTSD and more, and you have quite the cocktail going on. You are in it, every day, no escaping and no avoiding it. It can be exhausting.

Imagine all of us thrown into a rock polisher, which is basically a barrel spun over and over. As the rocks crash against each other, they chip off the sharp edges of the other stones, make surfaces smoother and help bring out the beauty. It is a long process, noisy, jarring and if rocks could feel, painful. The dust turns to soil, and only in soil can seeds grow.

It’s what happens in the kitchen. Sometimes we collide against each other, and when we crack in half, we reveal the beauty inside, like a geode. Other times, we are like well-matched mosaic pieces, each of us a tile precisely cut to complete the greater picture. Every day is a new adventure, and another chance to fill in a piece of the puzzle.

A new class starts on Tuesday, and another seven souls will be there to push and pull against each other. We will change each other as well as ourselves in ways we may not know until years down the line. Sometimes we’ll be rocks, other times we’ll be gems. We might even be a tile or two. But hopefully, in the end, we will bring out the best in each other and reveal a little more of our hidden beauty.

 

Sylt Roses

The car radio broke on Sylt, which is why we listened to just two cassette tapes as we drove up and down this slender sliver of land in the cold Atlantic ocean.

T and I barely made our way to this German island in the North Sea, having almost missed the ferry from Denmark, because of someone’s (not mine) notorious tendency to be tardy.

We raced from Hamburg to Denmark, propelled as much by adrenaline as pistons in T’s old forest green VW Golf.  With minutes to spare before our sailing time, we trundled into the belly of the ferry. Leaving the car, we made our way through the gaggle of vacationers to the passenger deck. There, in the late summer breeze, we watched the August sun trace our wake southwest.

We docked and headed off the ferry and onto a magical slip of an island. Leaving the touristy ferry dock, we meandered down single lane roads, passing thatch-roof houses, green pastures and the always-present border of sand and sea. The rush and scramble of Hamburg seemed far away, indeed.

A few kilometers down the road, the car radio decided this was as good a time as any to go AWOL, and promptly deserted us. Armed with only two cassettes, we were reduced to an aural diet of Peter Gabriel’s So album and The Gipsy Kings. We alternated between wailing along with the soulful poetry of Peter Gabriel and high-energy-bopping-along to the rapid fire guitars of the Gipsy Kings.

Repetitive motion. Is it any wonder that those two albums are forever imprinted in my mind as the Music of Sylt?

As we rounded a bend along the road, T pulled up and parked. “This is my favorite spot on the island.” he told me.

He turned to watch my reaction, as I stared in sheer wonder at a bank of Sylt roses (rosa rugosa) shrubs in full bloom. Sporting only five petals each, but carrying an attitude of regal tea roses, these blooms tumbled over each other in a mad dash to drink in as much of the intense summer sun as possible before the winter cold came calling. Bumble bees flitted from from flower to flower, like tiny manic orchestra conductors.

“Play, play play!” they exhorted. Their sonorous buzzing was the perfect backdrop to the high soprano notes of the fushia pink petals.

Shasta daisies rounded out the tableau, with cornflower blue bachelor buttons and red poppies acting as the chorus. These humble garden blossoms happily filled in the harmony, doo wopping their songs, giving the entire floral act a little jazz flourish.

I got out of the car, and walked over to inhale the heady raspberry fragrance of the roses. It was overwhelming and emotional, a purely sensual experience. If you could smell joy, it would be this. Sweet, high and intense, with earthy notes of sand, salt breeze and green summer grass to temper it.

The warm sun on my back, the cool whisper of sea air across my arms, and my eyes and nose filled with this heavenly bouquet; it was a moment of sheer bliss. I looked at T, who smiled back at me, and said “I knew you would like this.”

We stood there for a few more minutes, gathering up and twisting threads of this beauty into a ribbon.

I pull this ribbon out on cold days, grey days, days when I need to remember how it felt to have the sun warm on my back, the sea breeze playing on my skin and the smell of roses in my nose. It’s old and worn now, but still treasured.

We reluctantly clambered back into the car, hit play and let Peter sing to us about red rain, not giving up and streets of mercy.

I want to go back to Sylt, and find that floral hedge. I do. I want to drive in an old green VW Golf, with no radio and just two cassettes to play. I want to capture that pristine moment. I want to be young again.

I won’t, of course. Sylt has changed. I am no longer the same person. Thirty years have gone by. Life moves on. Even if I go back, nothing will be the same. It’s perfect that way.

 

 

 

 

Mama’s Colibri

The ancient Aztec thought the colibri (hummingbird) were the returned souls of warriors killed in battle. It seems only fitting that B and I saw one today, delicately perched on a cherry tree that was arrayed in rosy floral chiffon.

Three weeks ago, B’s mother died after a year and half long battle with pancreatic cancer. Today was my first time to see B after her mother’s death.

Pancreatic cancer. When B came into work and told me that her mother had just received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer that very day, I hugged her tight and murmured words like “be brave” and “it’ll be okay”.

But in my mind, I was alarmed; pancreatic cancer seems to be a quick killer. People get diagnosed, and mere weeks or months later, they are gone.

B’s mother held on and fought tough. Amazing for this demure woman. Despite tussles with insurance companies, convoluted conversations with doctors and nurses (B translating English to Spanish for Mama), months of agonizing chemotherapy and radiation, she tenaciously clung to life. She did it stoically, with grace and good humor.

I met Mama once, briefly.  She was having a good week, so B brought her by to say hello. She was quiet, sweet and kind.  She didn’t say much to me, because of the language barrier, but she beamed at her daughter and grandchildren. It was clear she was savoring every moment with them, not knowing how many more she had left. Love was her lingua franca. It spoke her heart’s mute adoration clearly and sweetly, like the hummingbird’s piccolo trill, audible and distinct.

Colibri were Mama’s favorite birds, so B asked her to choose one, giving her sixteen pictures from which to decide. A week later, B got that hummingbird picture tattooed on her forearm, and surprised Mama with it.

Two more weeks, and Mama was gone.

Tattoos last forever. Thankfully.

Today I took B to my favorite place to view the cherry blossoms, along a quiet street in Seattle. I wanted to give her a place to find solace and beauty after such a rough and ugly time in her life.  I wanted to remind her that the nature can be generous and soft, not always grasping and harsh.

As we strolled down the sidewalk under clouds of pink petals, B’s face brightened as the blossoms cast their spell. The blushing inflorescences seemed even more delicate against a grey spring sky, a potent charm to ward off the chilly April breeze.

We passed several groups of people, all intent on welcoming Spring under this gentle arbor umbrella. We crusty Seattleites smiled at each other, and greeted one another with “good morning” and “have a lovely day” salutations. The magic of the blossoms was strong.

Suddenly, B stopped and whispered “Look!” and pointed across the street to the top of a cherry tree. There, perched on the highest bough, was a hummingbird, resting for just a few precious seconds. It sang a chorus of soprano chirps, and off it went, zipping to its next task.

B looked at me, and we smiled at each other.

“Mama was here!” B exclaimed. And yes, I do believe she was.

Warrior bird. Mama’s bird. Marking a lovely spring day etched with ephemeral cherry blossoms.

The Real Cost

I’m more than slightly irritated that a salad recently cost me over $15.

It was a nice salad, as salads go. It was not the supermodel of salads, but it certainly was more than just spring mix and a couple of lashings of manufactured dressing, haphazardly topped with a few pale cherry tomato halves.  A complimentary mixture of exotic-sounding lettuces, adorned by about a dozen pieces of bacon crumbles, a well-poached egg with a slightly oversalted vinaigrette, it was a perfectly good late afternoon lunch.

And it cost over $15.

Which is probably what the restaurant needs to charge for it.

Because of high rent in this city.

Because of high labor costs.

Because THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS CHEAP FOOD.

And that’s more than fair.

So why am I irritated?

Because I could take a similar salad, remove its fancy French name, put it on a menu in an “ethnic” restaurant, and watch people revolt at the price.

Yes, “ethnic” food in quotes. Because in a Eurocentric world, anything not European based is “ethnic”. (Excuse me while I go bang my head against the wall.)

Why do we do that? Why do we think Asian, Indian, Mexican (insert your favorite non-European heritage food here) has to be cheap?

These restaurants face the same challenges as any other restaurant: rising rent, a competitive labor market, and challenging food costs. Add to the equation utility bills, insurance, taxes, marketing budgets, internet presence, and on and on. The advent of delivery services take their cut. Competition is fierce and unrelenting.

And let’s not even bring up what online reviews can mean for a business. (The biggest most common complaint everywhere seems to be prices are too high. The flip side is the praise of cheap food at these establishments, perpetuating the cycle.)

Fine. I brought up the effects of online reviews.

Smaller restaurants, especially those “mom and pop” models run by newly-arrived immigrants more often than not make everything from scratch. There is no big semi-truck pulling up to the back door, off-loading premade frozen chicken fingers, boxes of fries, already-decorated giant mudslide brownies and so on.  There are no auto-timed deep-fryers and ovens to “cook” the food for workers to assemble, wrap and bag up.

What you will see are hard-working people taking raw ingredients and turning them into delicious food.  What you will see is real cooking.  Flour becomes bread. Tough cuts of meats and underrated vegetables turn into flavor-packed dishes. Herbs and spices are used with a generous hand to bring out the best side of often humble ingredients. Beans and rice attain almost deity status. Magic happens. As it does in kitchens around the world.

So why would you expect to pay less?

These people are sharing with us centuries of cooking traditions, years of memories, and for some, the only way they know to immediately find work in their new homeland, by creating jobs for themselves. For some, for many, their university degrees are invalid here in the States. They open restaurants and small stores to support themselves, create welcoming environments for fellow emigres, and to be a part of the community.

Do you still think you should pay less?

One of the things that I have learned over the years around this globe is that cooking techniques are cooking techniques.  They may not be codified according to Careme or Escoffier, but that does not make them any less valid or legitimate than lessons to be had in a formal French kitchen. We should respect that.

For example, to make a good keay wat, an Ethiopian beef stew, T minced and caramelized sixteen onions and a cup each of fresh ginger and garlic. For ten pounds of beef.  By hand. No food processor, she WAS the chopping machine.

A good chicken stew, she says, takes TWENTY-FIVE onions, minced and caramelized, for TWO chickens. If you’ve ever chopped onions, garlic and ginger finely, you know: mad respect.

Yes, I still look twice when I see something priced over the decade mark on a menu in an “ethnic” restaurant. And then I have to slap myself upside the head for falling prey once again to the same mentality I have been railing against in the above paragraphs.  Because it is so ingrained in us, this idea that these cuisines should be cheap.

Also, please, can someone help me come up with a better descriptor than “ethnic” food, because in China, India, Mexico, Turkey et al, it’s just food.  Speaking of which, I wonder if French cuisine in China is considered “ethnic”?

Bottom line, again, there IS NO SUCH THING AS CHEAP FOOD. Even if the menu prices are low, there are hidden costs: the long-term effects on your health, the lasting effects on the environment, the conditions under which our food is grown or raised and harvested,  and the way it is processed. The safety of our food is fragile as we turn to processing factories to keep up with demand. The diversity is diminishing in the gene pool as we selectively breed for faster growth and bigger yield.  You may not see that reflected in the dollar amount on the menu, but somewhere you are paying for it, invisibly, and unknowingly. Make no mistake.

In such a culturally rich and diverse part of the country, where we strive to be welcoming to all, maybe it’s time to change our ideas of food, specifically where its origins are and what it should cost because of that.  I, for one, am tired of slapping myself upside the head.

 

Frankfurt

Another early morning landing after an all-night haul across the Atlantic, and Frankfurt is the first city in Germany to welcome me.

As the plane circles lower and lower on final approach, I peek out of the window, thrilled and excited to see the land that I have heard described as clean, orderly and beautiful.

One more quick glance out the window before darting to my jump seat and strapping myself in for landing, the mental snapshot of red tile roofs becomes my memory marker for Germany. Wide expanses of red tile, all in place, all in line.

I suppose as far introductions to Germany goes, Frankfurt is a rather diluted version of the Land of Bier and Bratwurst I had envisioned in my head. I am slightly dismayed at the number of tall buildings and almost “Americaness” of the cityscape. I could be in Chicago.

I am alarmed that the airport police sport automatic machine guns. THAT is something one does not see in America everyday, at least not in the late ’80’s. With their green shirts and official efficiency, I find the German Polizei intimidating.

I am amused that in typical efficient Teutonic fashion, the “Trefftpunkt” or Meeting Point in the airport is literally a large red dot with four arrows pointing towards it.  It is an actual meeting POINT.

I am taken aback by the sheer volume of people milling about, everyone intent on going in different directions, all somehow finding their way through the maze of humanity.  The claxon of reverberating loudspeakers in German and mostly English advising passengers of gate changes, boarding calls, directions to missing connections underscore the babel of languages going on in rapid tempo around me. It is a physical, visual and aural assault of the senses.

I imagine a bird watching us from above would see a pinball game in real life, with families and luggage carts pushing by businessmen with briefcases. There are flight crews from across the globe, each in their own colorful uniforms, striding through the concourses with their air of cosmopolitan sophistication. Tourists scurry about in panic that they will look like tourists and somehow get lost or get swindled. Swirls and eddies of humanity form around gate podiums, clustering in a frenzied dance that ends when the plane door closes and the aircraft pushes away. Frazzled travelers are buying candies, magazines, perfumes, cosmetics and cigarettes from shops, sustenance for long flights, and treasures to bring home. It is unchoreographed and yet somehow human beings move through to their final destinations.

The departure and arrival flight board reads like a globe, and names of cities incite dreams about locations I have only heard about.  And yes, there are indeed flights leaving for Kathmandu, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Mumbai and so on. I stand before the board, a bit in disbelief that these places do exist and one can fly there. The romance of travel, as interpreted by a cold digital display in a highly unromantic manner. My brief reverie is interrupted, as I am herded along by the rest of the crew, pushed along by tide of the impatient travellers behind me.

We are staying in a small town on the outskirts of Frankfurt. I get to the hotel, and despite the overwhelming urge to sleep, shower and head out into the cold damp German air. One of my fellow flight attendants has told me German bathing gel is THE thing to get, so I head into Karstadt, the first store I see, and marvel for a long time at the selection of bath soaps. I select a giant bottle of Badedas rose-scented shower gel, and another oversize bottle of Nivea body lotion.

With my ablution supplies in hand, I wander across cobblestone streets.  I pass storefronts with colorful fruits and vegetables displayed out front. I stop to admire the flower vendor’s wares, and impulsively buy a bunch of roses, even though I know they will not likely survive the flight home (they do, and even pass through immigration and customs with no issue).  I go to the food hall in another department store and buy a pretzel and some quark with chocolate and cherries in it, simply because it looks delicious.

Dinner is with the rest of the crew, in a restaurant they frequent every week on their layovers. They are Stammgaeste. I get my first taste of Jaegerschnitzel there, and also my first German Pilsner vom Fass. I am told it takes seven minutes to properly pour a Bier vom Fass, because the foam must settle.  Seven minutes seems like an incredibly long time to wait for a Bier, I think. But who am I to buck against thousands of years of tradition? The restaurateur brings us shots of Apfelkorn at the end of the meal, a sweet apple-y exclamation point to end my German day.

The next morning, I wake up extra early and walk around town again. It’s barely past six and the delivery trucks are pulling up, shopkeepers are washing off their front steps. Bakeries are pumping the delectable aroma of bread into the early morning air, and the German day is shaking off rubbing the sleep from its eyes.

I love this hour. I do this in every city I can. Wake up, walk about, see life without the milling mobs of people. Paris, Amsterdam, Stuttgart, London….the motions are the same.  I want to see how the locals get ready for their day, I want to be a part of that landscape, even for a fleeting moment.

I quaff a strong cup of coffee with extra cream, let the caffeine soak into my bones.  Then I scurry back to the hotel, don my uniform and wheel my suitcase downstairs to meet the crew for the van ride back to the airport.

On board, I stand in the cabin and greet guests as they find their seats, get settled in for the long flight to Atlanta.  English, German, with a smattering of other languages bubble in the air, the anticipation of an upcoming adventure, or the relief of going home. I think about the Germans who will be seeing America for the first time, who will have Atlanta as their touchstone for their first American city. I wonder if they, too, will feel swept away in the “foreignness” of the place. I am curious as to what their first impressions of America will be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daffodils

On a grey March day in 1987, on a day filled with sleet, snow and hail, a daffodil greeted me in Hyde Park. I was reminded of it as I saw the first buds of daffodils pushing out amongst the blackberry bushes along Montlake this morning.

It was my first time in London.  Indeed, I had never before been to Europe. Three months into this flight attendant thing, and I hit the Reserve Jackpot, being called in to cover a sick crew member for a trip across The Pond. I grabbed my over-packed suitcase and scurried off to the airport.

We touched down in London in the early morning hours, having winged our way across the Atlantic overnight.  Bleary-eyed, stupefied by lack of sleep, and yet desperate to not waste a single moment of this legendary city, I hastily changed out of my blue uniform and into jeans and sneakers.

I tumbled out of the revolving doors of  the hotel, and the foreignness hit me like the cold London rain. Exhilarating, a bit forbidding, and a jolt to my senses.

“Mind the curb. Look Left. Way Out.” Even the signs seemed to blend British understatement with formal politeness to my naive eyes.

I walked down cobbled streets, wide boulevards, and twisting lanes.  I let my fancy lead me, and wondered if to passersby, I looked like a shiny penny, testing her worth for the first time is a big foreign city.

It was cold, a damp piercing chill, in stark contrast to the eagerness I felt burbling in my bones. I burrowed deeper into my coat as the rain and sleet did their best to pelt me into submission. My feet lead me to Kensington Gardens, a name that seemed so grand and royal, how could I resist? I pressed on along the River Thames (THE RIVER THAMES!!!) and on winding paths until I found myself in front of a large Marble Arch.

I didn’t know much about London or English history back then. Names struck me as vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t put them together with any historical events. Certainly not that big white arch.

I’m not sure I’m much better at it now.

Historical gravitas aside, I was lured deeper into the gardens by the lush greens of the grass, and the weeping of the willows.  And there, under the shelter of trees were daffodils.  Great ebullient clumps of them, bowing and dancing a polka in the stiff March breeze. Is it any wonder that the French word for yellow, “jaune” and jaunty seem to share the same root?

Simple flowers, really. But disarmingly poetic in their innocence. For a girl who grew up thinking orchids were ordinary and boring, the satiny elegant yellow and faint perfume of those daffodils were intoxicating. I could not get enough of them. I flitted from patch to patch of these blooming carillons of sunlight, and thought this is what it must be like to be in one of those Disney animated forests.

Sadly, twenty four hours passed too quickly, and soon it was back on the plane, back across the Atlantic.

I guess I COULD have gone to museums, shops and tea in London. Or a pub. I do think I made it to Harrod’s at some point. In a city with so much to offer, it almost seems a shame that I spent my afternoon amongst daffodils. But it’s those vibrant gilded bells that I remember best, and what for me, will always be my warm English welcome.

 

 

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.