Archive for the 'Lonely Girl Loves' Category



The Only Omar I’ve Ever Known

So one of the great things about being an expat in Phnom Penh is all the extra time I have. It’s kind of unreal. Despite the fact I now have two jobs, a volunteer gig, a possible contract position in the works and try to freelance my ass off, I’ve still got buttloads of free time. Why did I never have any in the States? I dunno, but here I fill it with all sorts of productive activities, from sweeping my apartment every morning to kick boxing to spending entirely too much time on Facebook.

Then there’s the bootleg DVDs.

They’re everywhere, and they’re mad cheap. Usually $1.50 a pop.

It’s a dangerous combo.

Add to this the fact that I’ve got a friend who has a killer collection and is about to leave town. I’m urgently trying to convince him that customs agents will freak out if he tries to enter any Western country with a 300+ stash of plastic cases with fuzzy, Xeroxed liners, and that the best solution to this is to leave his collection in my safekeeping. Don’t know if it’ll work, but in the meantime, I’ve been sampling his goods.

And I’ve gotten into The Wire.

I was afraid of The Wire. I was afraid for the same reason I’m afraid of Words With Friends—do I really need another addictive timesuck?

Why, yes, yes I do.

So I’m working my way through Season One, curled up on my less-than-comfortable wooden bench in my kimono each night, eyes glued to the laptop screen adjusted juuuust so.

The world doesn’t need another commentary on the series, so I’ll just keep it to what’s relevant, which isn’t really relevant at all, just feels relevant tonight: my favorite character is Omar. For obvious reasons. But for less obvious reasons, it got me thinking tonight. As I had my nightly cigarette on the terrace (sorry Mom) and watched the stray motorbikes whiz by three stories below, listened to the neighbor’s dog barking, felt one of those rare cool breezes dancing around the edges of my kimono—it got to thinking about the only Omar I’ve ever known.

Omar James. I’ll use his real name, cause why the fuck not?—weird things happen online and I might even find him. We went to grade school together. He was in my class, all the way through, but I remember him most from sixth grade.

Omar was American, which sounds obvious, but half of my grade school was immigrant kids, so it actually kinda narrows it down. He wasn’t a Bad Kid, but he wasn’t a good kid either—that strange kind of inbetween place people float in as kids, before puberty, when all hell breaks loose—that time when everyone’s lives hangs before them, unformed and waiting, like one of those planetary birth charts I’ve never understood or been able to read.

I remember the DARE counselor, a dude named Officer Lee, saying on the first day: “There’s three kinds of kids. There’s the kids that’ll for sure get into drugs and the kids that for sure won’t. Then there’s the kids in the middle.” He’d paused here, for effect. “Those are the ones we’re trying to reach.”

I knew positively I was one of the kids who wouldn’t.

So I’ve been known to be wrong in my life.

But I remember thinking Omar was one of the kids in the middle. He had a real raspy, low voice, so the teachers always caught him when he was talking (“Your voice is like a red race car,” one teacher had told him. “People are always gonna notice it.”) I remember one term we were seated in the same group, warped old wooden desks facing each other, and I’d tried to whisper something to him out of turn—my version of taking a risk—and he’d gotten frustrated, making a pssshhh noise and said, “Man, I can’t hear you.”

I probably turned real red.

Irish blood makes you do that.

No one else in that class had Irish blood.

Omar had real dark skin and a burn from a flat-iron on his forearm. Lots of the black kids had them, and I remember wondering why—in the same way other kids asked if all little white girls were born with parts in their hair.

He had rough hands too; I remember that. They had little scars on them, callouses and patches of grayed skin, and they’d seemed to me like grown-up hands, man hands. I remember watching them, holding a pencil during tests. I remember watching that shiny burn too, the way the light seemed to gleam off it someway special.

He also had these little gray hairs all over his head. They curled around the rest of his hair, in a way that made them seem curlier, though probably they weren’t. He said he’d always had them, and I’d remember that, since second grade, he had. He said his grandpa had them too, and that that was who he’d gotten it from.

Omar also had a Starter jacket. That was a big deal back in the day. Cause they were expensive and fly. Kids in Oakland fought over Starter jackets, the way kids also fought over Air Jordans, and the kids who had them had a reputation for, you know, the kinds of things kids with fancy shit in poor cities have a reputation for. The Oakland School Board got frustrated and decided to ban the jackets at all schools. This was before the days of semi-mandatory uniforms in public schools, so the ban was also big deal. The school board meeting where it was discussed made the nightly news, and I remember thinking, “Not all kids with Starter jackets are thugs—Omar’s got one.”

No one, I should say, ever tried to fight Omar for his.

Which is maybe why The Wire Omar made me think of him.

But I really don’t know why the fuck I should remember any of this. Maybe it was the hair, the little gray hairs, and how they made me have a picture of his grandpa—some old dude as a little boy once, somewhere, hella long ago, with the same little gray hairs. And picturing that had made me picture Omar as an old man, the same way his rough hands did.

Neither one of us would be old now.

But still.

Then I left that school—we all left, graduated—and I went to a nicer public school up in the hills, followed by a string of other schools—the typical hustle for a decent education in Oakland—and I lost touch with most of those kids. I’ve found some through Facebook—Alekist, who went to Brown and works for a biotech company; Dartanyan, who used to do backflips off the stairs and has a record label now. (Okay, so, I found two kids.) But even before The Wire, even before Phnom Penh and expathood and this weird ass new life of mine that has made me nostalgic for random shit I can’t explain, I’d looked for Omar a few times—plugged his name into the search bar and got nothing.

Cause some people stick like that. Some images stick like that.

Like a race car in the red.

“The River That Empties Into The Ocean”: Glimpse Piece #2

Wax refugees from Khao Lan

So. Finally, finally, nearly a year after I originally landed on this continent, the second piece for my Glimpse project was published. You can check it out here.

The piece depicts my trip to the Thai border, where I searched for the remains for an old refugee camp my friends’ family passed through. If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you’ll recognize part of the journey. What I didn’t write about at the time—because I knew I wanted to save it for this piece—was the strangely fortuitous meeting that occurred after I’d returned to Cambodia, made entirely possible by this blog. (Hey, I still may not have monetized this thing, but at least I’m getting something out of it!)

With the publication of this piece, I’ve officially completed the Glimpse Correspondent program. As such, I was asked to write a few words about my experience. What I basically told him was how incredibly valuable the program was to me. Getting the clips was nice, getting a stipend was nice, but what it really came down to was the editorial guidance. Sarah hashed through some insanely deep-level edits with me, giving me the kind of feedback you usually have to pay a lot of fucking money for.

I was gonna come out here and do the project regardless—I’d already booked my tickets when I’d heard my project was accepted—but it would have ended up being a much different project if it hadn’t been for all the support and guidance I received. I think the process pushed me to grow a lot, both creatively and personally. And I secretly kind of doubt I’d be back out here now if that hadn’t happened.

So read up! It’s mega long, so grab some coffee and get comfy. Then tell me what you think—and what you for real think, not what you polite think. [Insert smiley face]

How Do You Write An Expat Blog, And Other Life Questions

Here's my terrace, for lack of a more relevant picture

So… you may have been able to tell by the infrequent and half-assed nature of my recent posts that I don’t know exactly what I’m doing here anymore. With this blog, I mean.

Well, okay, I guess my life too.

I know how to write a travel blog. Not a super successful monetized one, but the kind of travel blog I want to write. I know what kind of material to look for and write about: snippets, character sketches, first impressions, cultural clashes, bizarre moments—the other-worldly, almost out-of-body moments that travel affords, that I’ve been craving and chasing for years now. I can even write a good informative, service post from time to time, and not feel totally smarmy about it. And when I’m not traveling, I know how to write travel-themed posts that manage to be relevant.

But I don’t know how to write an expat blog.

I’ve been in Phnom Penh for a little over two months now. I’ve left the city once, for 2 days; I’ve got a couple little trips planned, including one to Malaysia over Khmer New Year. But for the most part, I’m staying put. I’m focused on establishing a life here—getting a job and friends and more furniture and houseplants, a routine and rhythm to my days. It’s not dynamic, exciting stuff; there’s no a big wow, must-see factor. It’s kind of just my life, and I’m not sure how to write about it here.

I’m not sure of a lot right now. I’m new at this—my first time being an expat. I’d always been intrigued by them, as a traveler. You could spot them, you know—the ease, the breeziness, the comfort with which they walked down the street, talked to vendors in the local language, went about their business with the kind of self-possessed air of a person reading a book on the train, when you just know it’s their commute home and they’re thinking about dinner or what TV show they’re going to watch or whatever—mundane shit.

Now I’m one of them, and there’s a lot of shit that feels mundane, uninteresting to write about. Which isn’t true, of course—it’s just that I don’t know how to write about it.

And I’d always wondered what expats thought of travelers. I’d talk to friends, whose feelings ranged from indifference to embarrassment; one girl I knew, living in Santiago, would avoid eye contact with other gringas, she wanted to badly to not to be associated with tourists.

But for the most part, for me, they seem to exist on this other plane, walking up and down the riverside in their flip flops and tank tops, and they kind of fade into the static of life here, right along with the construction noises and metallic audio recording of the egg vendors.

But it’s funny, cause sometimes I notice them, just kind of watch them, and it’s a strange, unexpected feeling that comes up. It’s not jealously, but a sort of wistful longing. They have a kind of structure, a context and definition: They are travelers. They are passing through. For the most part they have book ends for being here—return tickets and lives waiting, houseplants being watered by friends in their absence. They have closets, I imagine, where all those zip-off pants and Tevas will return to.

And for the first time, I don’t have that. I don’t have the security, the knowledge of a life that’s waiting for me somewhere. Here’s my life, but I’m not exactly sure what that life is yet. I’m discovering it, and it’s exciting and scary and lonely and exactly where I need to be right now.

But I don’t know how to write about that.

But inbetween-nees seems to be the theme these days. I’m 29: I’m not old, but I’m also not young anymore, and there’s wrinkles where there didn’t used to be wrinkles. I don’t know what clothes to wear; I’d go to shows back in the States over the summer, and the band would look like they were 12, and everyone would be young, so young, glowing with young in a way that seems ravaged and obscene. And not me.

But I’m not totally sure what “me” is anymore. Or I suppose I should say, where me fits in this new life, that has yet to form. It’s slowly taking shape—I can feel it and I have a faith, which might be a blind faith but is a faith nonetheless, that it’ll all gonna work out.

I just don’t know how to write about it yet.

Pizza and Love in Milan: Le Grand Fooding Milano 2011

The way to a man’s Italian’s French hipster’s anyone’s heart is through food. Especially pizza.

This is the main lesson I came away with from a weekend spent at Le Grand Fooding Milano. The others included: Italians don’t know what aioli is; there’s really no such thing as “Italian” food, and Northern Italians are shocked and somewhat scandalized by white pizza; Nespresso isn’t bad; there is perhaps no one more effortlessly chic and hip and fucking nice as a French foodie; as such, I will never be a Le Fooding girl; and it’s pretty easy to crash a food festival (and sneak into a Sheraton) as long as you work hard and smile a lot. And know the right people.

I spent the last weekend in Milan, at a three-day food event put on by the French culinary guide/movement/cultural phenomenon Le Fooding. While not terribly well-known in the States, they’ve been around 10 years in France, stirring shit up and throwing parties and breaking rules and basically being the anti-Michelin Guide.

The theme of Milan’s festival was international chefs cooking Italian food versus Italian chefs cooking Italian food, and, being one of the better-known Neapolitan-style pizza restaurants in the US, Pizzaiolo (where I waited tables for the past year and a half) was invited to attend. My co-workers/chefs Jed Cote and Jason Loeb were flown across the globe, put up in a Sheraton, given a pizza oven and prep kitchen and about 100kg of squid, and sent to represent us.

And, since I was in Italy, I decided, you know, what the fuck—I’m going too.

So I showed up with my backpack and messenger bag and hoodie and crashed the party.

Represent!

Well, it wasn’t crashing exactly. We just figured that if I showed up to the San Pelegrino prep kitchen with Jason and Jed in the morning, hung out and sliced tomatoes and picked herbs and shit, and if I rolled with them to the event, just acted like I was supposed to be there, you know, that it’d all work out.

And it did, and it’s a good thing it did, cause it turned out to be one of those races to the finish, getting the pizza dough right, and cutting the squid, and plating and serving all the slices at the party. More than just a freeloader, I ended up being really useful. And having a rocking good time.

In all its glory

We were there making one of our signature pies (and one of my favorites)—a squid, cherry tomato and aioli pizza. Simple, makes the most of our Northern Cali goodness—abundant, sustainable squid supplies, bomb cherry tomatoes in the summer. We were contracted to pump out 50 pizzas, enough to feed the 300 guests each night, in the hour and a half before they went into the dining room for the seated dinner featuring four dishes from four different chefs.

Hella squid

We spent the mornings prepping, and one of the things I wasn’t expecting was how different the ingredients and facilities would be. Of course, the very premise of the event brings up issues of authenticity, of what happens to a cuisine when you take it from its home and drag it across the planet like… a spaghetti noodle (thus the name). But I didn’t anticipate how the location change would affect our own pizza. Jed and Jason brought their own yeast and used the same OO flour we use at the restaurant, but the squid was larger in Milan, and the tomatoes were more like small Romas instead of Sungolds and Sweet 100s, and less acidic and sweet. We also had a smaller mixer that required 4 batches to make our usual one; we also transported the dough to the event in a trash bag (classy). The pie didn’t end up tasting exactly how it does at home, and I guess that’s part of the point—that locality is crucial, defining, and that when foods travel, they change.

Trash bag dough!

At the event space, which took “industrial chic” to new levels, I hung out while the boys got the fire cranking and set up. It was some truly awesome people-watching. All the Le Fooding people were young and impossibly chic in that particularly Parisian way, cardigans and scarves (the boys) and little boots and tights and drape-y tops (girls), and a look we dubbed “the urban equestrian.” In my younger, less settled incarnations, I would have spent the time comparing myself to them and ultimately feeling shitty about myself. But now it was just comical—“Do we even grow girls like that in North America?” I asked my friends, and they shook their heads so fact I thought they might fall off.

Le Fooding girls

It was kinda like the squid and the tomatoes.

There were also tons of Italian crew setting up, working on the lights and such—they were less chic, more working class, in their cargo pants. Then there were the security guards and the phalanx of confused-looking 18-year-old assistant cooks/mignonnes, and the caterers—and everyone chain-smoking, chain-smoking, like it was their job. (One of the girls at the arancini stand was smoking while she set up the deep fryer…)

The people attending the event were a different breed—mostly middle-class, middle-aged Italians, with a sprinkling of hip folks and a whole slew of media. While the boys cooked, I plated slices, and talked to folks.

“Pizza di Oakland,” I heard people mutter.

“Pizza di Aukland?”

“No, America. Near to San Francisco.”

“Ah, pizza di Oakland! This is how you do pizza in California?”

“Well, this is how we do pizza.” And a wink and smile.

But the real test was the reception, which we seemed to win. People were only supposed to get one slice, but, as per our stuff-everyone philosophy, we’d prepped enough for 20 or so extra pies. So I got the catch people’s eyes as they tentatively looked over, tried not to hover, and I got to smile and motion for them to eat another. And another. Kill em with kindness, but also with food.

At 8:30, the Le Fooding kids ran a little bell and herded everyone into the dining room. Which is when the real fun started. Technically, we were done. But while the important chefs scurried around with their mignonnes, plating 300 dishes, and a crew of young caterers lined up, wearing all black with fucking headlamps on, like it were a Vegas show—we got to do what we love best, which is love on people.

It’s part of the whole Pizzaiolo philosophy (and the reason I loved working their so much)—to love the shit out of people, through food. So we started cranking out the pies. First some of our neighbors: the arancini girls and the Mumm champagne kids, and the guys at the next pizza oven, from Pizza East in London. Then a couple for the security guards and the people working the front door. How about the two gender-ambiguous Filipino cleaners? Of course! The endlessly hungry-eyed mignonnes—sure! Hey you, founder and director of this big-deal culinary movement—you get enough squid? How bout you, firefighter? You cold, Pelegrino girl?—come huddle by the pizza oven for a few minutes.

Cause that’s what it’s really all about, right? That’s why we call it breaking bread, why we mark important events by gathering for meals, why every fucking culture in the world comes together for food. It’s about love and building relationships and making friends, not cause it’s gonna get you something or somewhere or even a reciprocal drink/dish/whatever, but because that’s what we do—that’s what cooks get into the business to do, and what I, it turns out, love most about the industry: the simple act of feeding people.

And that’s what I think, after three days, that Le Fooding is all about to. I’d scoured the internet for English-language articles about them, and the main thing I’d read from the big American food critics is that they didn’t understand what Le Fooding wanted, or what they were trying to do (reminds you of Occupy Wall Street a bit, huh?). But after the weekend, after seeing how intensely we broed down and how food enabled all that, became a kind of edible language, when real language failed—it’s not that hard for me to understand what they want. They want that: love.

By the third day, we knew everyone—everyone stopping by to say hello or waving as they passed—and we partied late into the night on Saturday, dancing and smoking and exchanging hugs and email addresses. And it came out, you know, that I wasn’t a chef and that I’d just kinda showed up, but there was so much love no one gave a shit—they gave me those French double cheek kisses and wished me well in Cambodia.

And it’s a shame to be leaving the restaurant industry after such a weekend. But, as Jed said, “Way to go out on top.”

And with a lot of fucking love. And a belly full of pizza, which I’ll miss almost as much as the love.

Loved these two!

Post-Trip Detachment and Feeling Fictitious

Lately I’ve been feeling like a character in a novel. I don’t know the plot, I don’t know the name of the book, and I’m wandering around pages as though I do.

I go about my business, tell myself my stories, think I know what’s going on. There’s a basic plot, there’s characters, there’s a surface I skim. But I have these moments when I suspect some whole other story is going on, some narrative I’m not aware of, just beneath the surface—how really good stories, it seems, are never about what they appear to be about. Sometimes I think I’ve got it figured out, and sometimes I get glimpses of how little I understand what the hell is happening and where the hell I’m going.

I wonder if that’s what it’s like to be fictitious. I wonder if characters in stories go about their plot lines, pulled by the strings of writers’ typing fingers, thinking they know what’s up. But there’s got to be that moment, a terrifying moment, when they realize the story isn’t at all what they thought it was, and isn’t going at all the way they thought it would.

The writers don’t know either, I think. I remember, writing fiction, when I was younger—the exhilaration of the moment, my hair tingling, when a story would take a sudden unexpected turn, as though the story were revealing itself to me, as though I weren’t the writer but the conduit. I was younger then and I loved my characters.

I’ve been reading more and writing less, and that’s probably what all this is. “I thought I knew the narrative,” a character said, and Holy shit, I thought, that’s how I feel about my life.

It’s probably in part that detachment travel affords, when your life seems less your own and more like someone else’s, something you’ve fallen into—a play with no curtains or wings, or wings that are obscured at least, that you can’t see behind the glare of the lights. Maybe travel is the wings, or your life is the wings, or the wings are that big black mystery that surround everything and can never see, only sense sometimes.

I’ve been tired. And quiet. I wouldn’t say I have writer’s block, because I’ve got plenty of ideas—articles and stories, saleable and personal. But I can’t get myself to sit down and do it. I open a file, putter around for a few minutes, then wander off to make coffee. I want to nap, to hang out with friends, swim in rivers and read books in the sun.

I don’t know where any of this is going; I’m waiting for a plot to reveal itself and the right words to come. But in the meantime, I feel very, very quiet.

Headcheese, Chicken Feet and “You Are What You Eat”: How Travel’s Beaten the Squeamish Eater Out of Me

Jeffery was taking a machete to the disembodied pig’s head when I walked into work.

The other boys stood around watching. They looked up when they heard the door, grinned sheepishly at me. “Headcheese,” Colin said by way of explanation. “Sorry.”

I looked at the knives, the smeared aprons, the hunks of pig scattered about the wooden cutting board, and shrugged. “I think Southeast Asia has cured me of any squeamishness towards meat,” I laughed.

Food culture, it can be said, is a microcosm of culture. Traveling around, I’ve discovered that a society eats and its attitudes towards eating can be simultaneously one of the most telling and easily accessible aspects of a culture. In this way, eating in a foreign country is both a lofty, anthropological glimpse into the psyche of a culture, and a visceral adventure that often sends one dashing to the nearest squat toilet.

Case in point: there’s a certain semi-green queasy look Westerners wear when walking through a Southeast Asian street market. The plucked bodies hanging limply from hooks; the still-alive fish flopping out of their plastic tubs; the women waving fans at the flies that settle on heads, hooves, chunks of body; the smell of raw meat blooming in the humidity like irony mold—it’s all so utterly unlike the shrink-wrapped FDA-approved supermarket culture of the Western world.

And I’m not gonna lie: I was a bit unnerved at first. The literal rawness of market culture in Southeast Asia is jarring. Watching a teeny little woman crouch down in her pajama suit and hack off a chicken head seems brutal, surreal. Ordering a bowl of soup and seeing a chicken foot poke out of the translucent tangle of rice noodles is startling. And not at all appetizing.

Yes, I eat meat, your Westerness seems to say. But I don’t want to think about the fact that I eat meat. I don’t want to be confronted with the reality that I’m eating another living being.

When I was London a few years back, there was a big stir about Marcus the Lamb. It was being discussed on the talk radio station that played through my friend’s basement flat while we brewed morning coffee.

The story was this: as a lesson in the breeding and rearing of livestock, a primary school had adopted a lamb. The kids named the lamb Marcus, and did cute things like bottle feed him. Six months later, it was time for the lesson to culminate: Marcus was to be slaughtered. A shitstorm ensued.

Parents freaked, animal rights activists threatened, the headmistress was branded a murderer and some of the pupils were reported to develop stress-related insomnia. To their credit, the school officials remained firm: this was the point of the lesson—teaching urban children where their food comes from—and they weren’t going to cancel the lesson. A national debate raged, centering, it seemed, on the extent to which the urban, Western world has become disassociated from its food.

I considered this all as I chewed my toast in the gray London light. I’d been a non-vegan/vegetarian for a little over a year. During my 12 year run as a non-meat-eater, I’d maintained that meat eaters should know and acknowledge the reality of meat consumption. I wasn’t one of those PETA people plastering horror-movie pictures of slaughterhouses around town, but I’d always thought—Fuck, you eat the shit; you should be able to handle a head or a hoof or something.

And I had to hold myself to that when I started eating meat again at age 25. If I was gonna do it, I reasoned, I was gonna do all of it. I wasn’t going to hide from the fact of it, and I wasn’t going to be wasteful. Living in the Bay Area and working in the restaurant industry, it’s easy to make mindful, informed decisions about where one’s food is from, to nestle in the cozy, bedtime-story feeling a Cruelty Free label provides.

Way of advertising a butcher in Morocco. Flickr photo.

But then there’s the Southeast Asian food market. Or the goat head stew in a Moroccan medina. Or cabeza tacos in Mexico (or the Fruitvale, whatever). And by being confronted with heads and eyeballs and recognizable anatomy that doesn’t seem so different from our own, you’re also confronted with your Americanness, your Westerness.

But people are amazingly adaptable, and after a couple weeks you normalize your surroundings. You don’t look twice at the rows of raw meat, and you even acknowledge that while eating a fertilized duck egg is a mind-fuck—a bit like eating an abortion—it is goddamn delicious.

And then you come home and wonder what the fuck everyone is riled up about. Yeah, it’s headcheese, made from head meat, you think, What’s the big deal? Or you wait on a dude who sends back the whole shrimp on his plate cause the little head and eyeballs “Just ain’t cool.” And you think, Really, buddy? You’re a grown man; that’s just a lil ole head. But you laugh and shrug and say, “No problem,” cause you know that that’s just the culture he’s coming from. And it’s your job to make him happy, not to judge what kind of food he’s comfortable eating.

To say that Westerners, especially Americans, have become disassociated from our food is an understatement. (“Where does ketchup come from?” a friend asked her inner-city students once. “The store!”) You think of the old adage “You are what you eat,” and you wonder what the hell that means for us. It can’t, you reason, be anything good.

If you can tell a lot about a person by how they eat, what does a society’s food culture say about them? They say, for instance, that girls from alcoholic homes are exponentially more likely to develop eating disorders. If you extend that on a societal level, it’s a fascinating if unsettling picture of a national psyche. The ability of Americans, for instance, to feed themselves nourishing food in a way that’s free of drama and control and fad diets seems to have shattered, gotten lost somewhere; I think that the sanitized, shrink-wrapped, mass-produced foods we eat are a part of that.

We in the West, and especially the States, don’t know what the fuck we’re eating—or are so far removed from it we flip out at the potential of exposing our children to the age-old reality of meat eating. (For the record, it was the students themselves that voted to slaughter Marcus the Lamb. But one has to ask: would such a lesson ever even happen in the US? Assuming, of course, a school even had to funding for such a lesson…)

Growing up, my mom was convinced that the demise of the family dinner was inextricably linked to the break-down of the American family. She thus insisted that we all sit down, no matter how much homework we had, for a nightly family meal. This was, as you can imagine, infuriating for a moody teenager; I’d scowl at my plate until eventually someone would say something funny and we’d all sit and laugh and linger for an hour.

I’m grateful for that now, in the same way I’m grateful to have traveled to five different continents and gotten the squeamishness beaten out of me. There are some things I still won’t eat—shark fin soup, which is just plain wasteful; or that monkey-brain stew they make in China by pouring boiling water into a live monkey’s recently cracked skull—that’s just plain cruel. I don’t think I’m a particularly enlightened eater, nor do I think I’m gonna change the world by shopping at farmers markets.

I just think that I’ve gotten a bit more realistic, had a bit of my own barriers broken down. At least to the point that walking in on the making of headcheese doesn’t cause me to look twice.

Okay, so maybe I played with the eyeballs...

10 Thoughts on Being Back in the US

1. Riding in my dad’s truck, MLK:
“So what does it feel like to be back?”
Look out the window, lines of lanes and sidewalk. “Everything feels really sterile. And clean.”
“Sterile and clean? Not usually words associated with Oakland.”
Laugh. “Yeah, I guess not.”

Empty

2. Running around the lake, joggers in sweat clothes:
Everyone looks really healthy here—big and robust, cheeks flushed.

3. Whole Foods, walk around for an hour, confused—pick up food, put it back down:
How do you shop in a grocery store? Everything looks plastic.

4. Winter-like storm, long pants and a jacket:
Everyone else may be annoyed, but I’m tickled to death.

5. Waiting to make left turn, watching the cars:
The US feels like a video game, some kind of old-school Atari: little boxes moving through space. The object of the game is to stay between the lines, stay in the lanes, walk on the sidewalk, put trash in the bin…

6. Rapture billboards:
Why?

7. Waiting to meet Nhu and Jacobo outside Bette’s Cafe, watching family:
“But I’m huuuun-greee.”
“Well, we have to wait.”
“But I don’t wa-nnnna.”
American children are allowed to be really obnoxious.

8. Wine meeting for work, varietal characteristics and spit buckets:
This is my job. This is silly.

9. Drive to meeting, park; drive to yoga, park; drive to cafe, park:
My life feels like a video game. I’m not sure what the object is.

10. Waiting at stoplight. Car beside me: bass bumping, boy leaning out of the open window, shirt half-off, arms raised, dancing:
There is nothing, nothing in the world like African-American culture.

Vintage Sounds: The Revival of Cambodia’s Golden Era

The 1960s were a bad-ass time in Phnom Penh.

You might not have known that. I certainly didn’t, not until a work friend happened to put Cambodian Cassette Archives on my iPod. Even then, I didn’t know the extent of the dopeness, just that the psychodelic, garage sounds coming through the little white earpieces were unusual, different, haunting—an echo of another era, most of the songs flashing with an “Unknown/Unknown” track title and band name. What the hell was this, how did it survive, why was it so effing good?


My intro to Cambodian rock

Well, it’s nice to know I’m not alone. People have been digging in, excavating through the darkness, trying to revive the Golden Era of 60s Cambodian pop culture: rock, films, thick lines of black eyeliner and bouffants the color of ink. It’s an exercise in lost histories, untold stories, missing pieces, what-could-have-beens, what-shouldn’t-have-beens. It’s an exercise in facing just exactly how much was lost. And ultimately, it’s an exercise in love.

So when I saw the flyer for a vintage shop, simply named Vintage, opening in Phnom Penh’s Russian Market yesterday—um, yes, count me in.

We waded through the sweaty stalls of the market—Western clothes and traditional trinkets, vegetables and raw meat, housewares and fruit stands. Tucked beside the nucleus of food stalls, it was easy to spot Vintage: sleek, boutique design, a crowd of hob-nobbing Westerners, and insanely good music coming out of the speakers.


Bad-ass original

The shop was selling remastered CDs, tshirts of contemporary Khmer hip-hop groups, some refurbished 80s ghettoblasters (dubbed as such), a new vinyl record by the revivalist band Cambodian Space Project. It’s the first vinyl, the enthusiastic Frenchman wearing a killer pair of glasses told me, to be pressed in Cambodia since the war. (Composed of an eclectic group of Westerners and fronted by a working-class Cambodian woman, the band is actually out of town for SXSW, so I’ll have to wait til April to catch them. For a super interesting interview, check out this link.)


Cambodian Space Project’s cover

One of the most interesting things for sale at the shop—and what had attracted me to the flyer for the opening in the first place—were the “reprints” of Cambodian film posters from the 60s. All the originals of these posters had been destroyed, not to mention the films themselves. But Sithen Sum, from the Kon Khmer Koun Khmer (Khmer Film Khmer Generation) repainted versions of the lost posters. We chatted, I got his business card, yes, yes, there’ll be an interview.

I’m forming an image in my head. It’s of Phnom Penh in the 60s. It’s aided by photography books I’ve browsed at the posh English-language bookstore. It’s populated with the people I’ve seen on grainy black-and-white videos at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, where I’ve spent hours clicking through the archives, where the people don’t look so different from how they do today, where the markets look the same and cyclos look the same and you could almost imagine none of it had ever happened.

The image has a sound. Behind the spotlights and sequins of it, it echoes of guitar riffs and mystery.

I’m sure this image is grossly inaccurate and veiled in layers of romanticized mystique, but right now I don’t really care. Sometimes you need a fantasy, a vision, a place in your head you can go to where everything is safe—just the glowing lights and the dancing limbs of some other time, that doesn’t seem so dead or so far away—that you let yourself pretend isn’t.

A Morsel of Americanness, Here in Cambodia

If you look deep, deep into my center of my American soul, you will find that it’s not composed of car owning or monolingualism or even rock n roll.

It’s filled with peanut butter.

Australians have their Vegemite and the Swedes have their Muesli and the whole of Europe has their Nutella. But I am American, and my heart pumps, not red blood like yours but thick, chunky, light-brown swirls of peanut butter.

In previous posts, I’ve claimed that this love of the ground peanut is my number one American qualifier. I’ve gone so far as to consider a peanut butter tattoo, which I envision coming complete with a traditional-style banner that reads: “From my cold dead hands.” I effing love the stuff, and I miss it dearly when I travel. Usually, when homesickness and the craving for healthy fat gets the better of me, I search and search for a jar to no avail.

So imagine my sheer delight when I found this little gem of patriotism staring out from the shelf at me:

Not only is it delicious and nutritious, it comes with a prominent display of national pride. Now that’s what I call proper marketing.

A Room of One’s Own, Phnom Penh

My mind is a land of contrasts. (How’s that for cliche?)

I love travel. I love the bag-and-purse of it, of having everything you need fit in a 18 kg bundle on your back. I love the not knowing, the pick-up-and-go of it, love arriving in a city dazed and cramp-legged, and I love walking new streets—the landscape of the unfamiliar. I even love the train-and-bus of it, the bump-of-the-road of it, looking out of a window at alien earth that sometimes seems a mirror to the alien earth inside myself, and thinking my nothing thoughts.

But I also love the notion of home—not a notion, really, but a feeling. I love running into people I know at the market. I love my favorite table at my favorite cafe. I love the comfort of routines, little rituals, the prayer inside the doing of everyday tasks. And I love the sense of having an anchor, somewhere deep inside you—that no matter where you go, there’s a place to go back to.

Which might be why I’ve never moved out of the US, or hell, even out of Oakland—some kind of magnetism that always pulls me back to my hometown, no matter how far I wander. Oh sure, I fantasize and I’ve plotted and planned, but when it’s come right down to it, I’ve never actually left.

I didn’t want to feel transient in Phnom Penh. I’ll be here for around six weeks of my 2+ months in Cambodia, and it’d be easy enough to just stay in a hotel. You can get a decent one for $10-13, with wifi and air-con and someone that comes to clean it everyday (an endlessly thrilling novelty for a budget traveler such as a myself). It would have been easier—everything pre-arranged, crisp corners and clean counters. It also would have been sterile.

I didn’t want to have to leave a key at reception every morning. I didn’t want the posse of motorbike drivers posted outside the door, waiting for Western customers. I didn’t really, when it came down to it, want someone else cleaning up after me everyday.

I wanted a room of my own.

I asked around about people looking to sublet, but didn’t come up with anything. So I just started walking around, looking for “For Rent” signs. I wanted to stay in the neighborhood my Couchsurfing host was in, slightly north of Center and a little mellower, where the pace is that of local folks living local life.

I found a place on Street 84. It’s not the nicest apartment—quite threadbare, actually, and it doesn’t have wifi. It’s not the cheapest either—not expensive, but if I’d spent longer searching, I’m sure I could have found a decent room for less. Once I pay for a month’s worth of electricity, it’ll end up only being slightly less than a midrange hotel.

But I have a room of my own.

I have a little vanity in the bedroom. It’s got small shelves and a mirror and a little drawer with a lock, a stool with a floral-patterned cushion that rolls out. I tenderly unpacked all my lady things—make-up and headbands and jewlery—arranged them on the shelves. I put my passport in the drawer. In the mornings I roll out the stool and open my jar of face powder and see my face in the mirror, looking back.

I have a small kitchen with a metal tub of a sink and a small tiled counter; I have a bathroom where the showderhead is beside the toilet and there’s no curtain to separate the two spaces, but it’s just enough room for one. Yesterday I went to the central market and bought toilet paper and dish soap and a sponge and a couple plastic plates and bowls, and I’ve placed them next to the handtowel the landlady supplied me with, which I folded into a neat rectangle.

There’s a fan in the other room that takes awhile to get going—I’ve got to pull the string cord four, five, six times to awaken it to its buzzing. There’s a metal table and a single chair and a TV set that I’ve left unplugged. There’s a refrigerator that must have come from some convenience store, a small, three-shelf thing covered in Pepsi logos. I’ve placed a container of Laughing Cow cheese inside, some yogurts, a mango the landlady gave me when I moved in. At night it beams like a fluorescent night-light, casting a glow throughout the apartment, and I hear it humming when I roll over in my sleep.

There’s big metal doors that I have to heave open and tug shut. Red contact paper has been placed over the thick glass, to make it opaque, and the light that shines through in the daytime makes the room look lurid. It’s got a big padlock that slides through the metal rings, and an old-fashioned skeleton-type key that was given to me on a shoestring and I keep it my purse, I carry it with me, all over this city—the key to my own room.

I love it. It’s barely furnished and virtually without windows and only mine for a month—but for that month it’s mine. My own room, my own sense of home, in Phnom Penh.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

Join 3,718 other followers

Tweet this Sh%t

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Buy This Sh#t

Categories