Peonies

There’s a rambunctious riot of peonies happening on my porch right now. Deep fuchsia petals in smooth satin, they flare up from a green calyx bodice. Carefully ruched and pinked, they are harbingers of late spring.

I knew WHAT a peony was as a child, thanks to the Japanese card game hanafuda, which my grandmother taught me.  I called them “botan” first, before learning their English name, peony.

I can see my grandmother now, in her simple wooden house by the sea, sitting at the counter with my grandfather, tossing card after card down in an endless cycle of hanafuda games, a mug of instant coffee sitting at the ready.

My cousins taught me the rudiments of the game, which suits belonged together, which cards trumped another.

Matsu, fuji, botan, sakura, and ume.…pine, wisteria, peony, cherry, and plum respectively. These suits were the my first (and only) Japanese language flashcards.

We played the game at dusk, after fishing at sunset in the nearby tide pool. When the light grew too faint for us to see, we left the fish in peace and made our way up over the lawn by flashlight towards the beaming lights of Grandma’s house.

Safely ensconced in a screened-in veranda, with mosquito punks burning in slow coils on their metal spindles for extra protection, we would hear geckos chirp and caw at each other from the rafters and nearby coconut trees.  It was a steady chip chip chip beat set to the faint murmur of the ocean three houses away. On a rare occasion, a hoot from a Hawaiian pueo would break the monotony of the geckos’ chanting.

Grape Nehi and orange Fanta were the drinks of choice, accompanied by dried ika, arare, and potato chips as we sat and played round after round of hanafuda. Huddled around low tables on zabuton, in our ubiquitous uniforms of tee shirts, shorts and bare feet, we whiled the time away as the adults sat with their beers and serious conversations.

Being the youngest of the cousins, I rarely won. But somehow, losing didn’t feel quite so bad when playing with such beautifully decorated cards. Familiar, yet foreign, these cards were a link to the plantations villages of my great-grandparents and a line across the Pacific to Japan. Not that I realized any of this back then; it’s only now that I am older that I realize a simple game interlinked us all.

Eventually, the night would grow darker, and we would head home. Yellow headlights would cut through the dust or rain, illuminating potholes, trees and the occasional owl looming out of the night along the empty country road. In the cocoon of the back seat, we would fall asleep, tucked under quilts my grandmother had sewn.

These memories come back to me each spring, when the peonies on my porch burst into bloom. An impulse purchase at a grocery store a few years ago, the plant has survived and thrived. Even the fragrance reminds me of Hawaii, of the plumeria flowers that grow everywhere in the islands.

I don’t know if my grandmother ever saw peonies in real life. They were not a flower found commonly in gardens or at florists when I was growing up.  And if they were to be had, I imagine the cost alone would have prevented my grandmother from buying them. Growing up in a sugarcane plantation and raising a family during the Great Depression did not cultivate flower-buying habits in her. She was a woman of necessity, not luxury.

So now, in spite of my rush out the door, or as I return home after a frazzled day of deadlines, traffic and noise, I stop and admire the peonies. I inhale their delicate perfume, and brush their shiny petals. I drink in the vibrant pink, try to sear it deeply enough into my brain to last for another twelve months before their next appearance.

And I think of my grandmother, and hanafuda, and of a childhood by the ocean. Rosemary may be for remembrance, but botan are for my grandmother.

 

 

Again and Again

It had been a long day. It was probably a Saturday, with a 7am start for me in the kitchen, as I scurried around to assemble the chef’s mise-en-place for his cooking class that morning.

Fifteen hours later, it is nigh on ten in the evening.  The dining room has filled and emptied twice over and now only a single table of guests remains.  Two middle-aged couples are enjoying the last of their dinner, probably a crepe souffle.

I tread lightly through the dining room, heading towards the front door and the reservations book. My last duty of the day is to make sure I have everything ordered and ready for the next day of service, so that the chef doesn’t need to worry. It’s a thankless job, this sous cheffing business, and yet I take great pride in my rapid promotion to Second in the Kitchen in one of D.C.’s best French restaurants, a year after graduating from culinary school.

As I pass the four top on my way back to the kitchen, they look up at me and smile.  I ask them if they’ve enjoyed their dinner, and they enthusiastically respond yes.

And then one man ruins it. He looks at me, asks me if I am the pastry chef.

Because I am a woman.

Because of course, a woman can’t hang with the boys on the line and handle the heat.

And because certainly, pastries are more delicate and not as demanding as cooking a steak, so therefore are the perfect avenue for the weaker sex.

Or so he thinks.

I stop dead in my track, and sadly, the professional flight attendant in me comes out. You know, the one that has put up for nine years with grown business men having hissy fits because they “have a Million Miles, Miss” and yet, I DARE MAKE them take their briefcases out from behind their knees and put them in the overhead bins.

New flash: physics doesn’t give two hoots about how many millions of miles you have should the aircraft come to a violently abrupt halt and the briefcase behind your knees turn into a projectile that performs a reverse godfather kneecap bashing. Physics is a bitch like that.

This is the Lisa that grits her teeth, and takes said (heavy as fuck) briefcases and puts them into the bins while these grown men sit and pout, and then revel in their schadenfreude of watching me struggle. Because of course, I made up that FAA rule just to for them.

But I digress.

Back at the restaurant, I pull myself up to all of my sixty two inches, throw a polite but chilly smile at the offending gentleman and reply, “No. I am the sous chef, and I cooked those beef tenderloins you just enjoyed. But thank you for asking.”

(In reality, small kitchens like that one don’t have a pastry chef. The job goes to the garde manger cook, a position I have worked in and subsequently trained others for. I’ve made all the desserts on the menu at some point; indeed, I have made all dishes on the carte at one time or another.)

Uncomfortable silence takes over, and the man shrinks noticeably in his seat.

The women, however, BEAM.

The better half of one couple sharply elbows her husband in the ribs. He smiles wanly, mutters something under his breath, and wishes for his cloak of invisibleness.

She gushes about how great it is, congratulates me on my job. She is ecstatic and effusive in her praise. She recognizes a member of the sisterhood trying to make it in a world skewed against our gender, and I think silently she’s rooting for women like me.

I nod, thank them, and return to the embrace of fluorescent lights to fume and swear in the sort-of soundproof cocoon of the kitchen.

I’ve been justifying, explaining and validating my cooking abilities since that day, if not from before.

Most women have had to. Lawyers, doctors, pilots, fire persons, police officers, scientists, professors……. the list goes on and on.  The thing these jobs have in common?  They have been traditionally viewed as the domain of men.

And for the record, I do NOT think being a pastry chef is “easier” than being on the hot line. If anything, that calling requires a degree of precision, patience, finesse and muscle that I know I don’t possess. If you think pastries are as easy as pie, you are woefully mistaken.

I thought it would get better as we as a society developed, as we evolved and graduated to a higher plane.  But last night, in 2017, twenty years later, an older man asked me if I was REALLY A CHEF, if I was a chef IN REAL LIFE.

And then he proceeded to ask me for my credentials.

I’m 52 years old, and have been cooking professionally for over 20 years. I’ve cooked for and with some of the best chefs here in the states. I have been a chef overseas. I stood my ground to a fucking hurricane, didn’t run when Katrina came calling. I’ve opened my own restaurants, and have my brand on prominent local market shelves. Some may say I failed, some may think I succeeded. I don’t really care. I lived, and that’s enough for me.

But this guy wants to know my qualifications to be a chef, wants me to explain myself to him.

Women get this All. The. Time. It happens when we least expect to be questioned, so of course, we are ill-prepared to come back with a snappy scathing retort. We also have ingrained in us the whole “be polite” mantra, to our disadvantage.

Look, I’m not saying don’t ask me questions. And no, I don’t want my ego stroked. But fer crying out loud, think before you let your ignorance and latent sexism show. Maybe ask yourself, hey, how would I feel if I had to explain why I like to (fill in the blank with any activity or profession that normally is done by women). And then if you think you wouldn’t like it, just be quiet.

Guys get it, too. Think about male nurses. Or male flight attendants. Or stay-at-home dads. Or men who like to sew or knit or dance, anything remotely judged by our society as “feminine”.

Either direction, it’s not fair. We all make silly assumptions, put our foot in our mouths whether it be about religion, race, sexual orientation, age, and gender. We put people in boxes, and get mad when they don’t stay in them.  Cats jump into boxes and stay there and that’s cute. It’s not the same for people. It’s never cute to box someone up.

It’s exhausting to constantly be on guard to defend and justify our place in this world. We shouldn’t have to, no one should have to.

It’s 2017. Can we please catch up to it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.