Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sugar Junkies

Yesterday I recorded the English language voice-over for two Vietnamese feature films at the studios of a Ha Noi company called Thang Long Audio Visual. In my experience Thang Long always does things on a much-too-short time line. Here how the process works:

1. Thang Long receives a film from the client.
2. Somebody Vietnamese watches the film and writes down each line of Vietnamese dialog.
3. A Vietnamese translator with a minimal knowledge of English translates each line into a parody of English. I suspect that the Vietnamese may be run through an automated Viet-English translation program or else the translation is accomplished by translating word-by-word using a Viet-English dictionary.
4. I'm given an e-version of the translated script the day before the English-language version is to be delivered to the client, with the hope that I'll fix up any rough spots in the translation. (I did this a few times. To do a decent job requires 10-20 minutes per page. The typical script runs 40-50 pages. For this editing phase T-L pays $18. I no longer bother editing scripts. T-L doesn't care. They're happy to save the $18.)
5. On the last possible day, somebody prints out a hard copy of the script and pushes it and me into a tiny recording booth where I'm plonked down in front of a microphone to read the (unedited) script aloud while watching the film on a monitor for the first and only time.
6. A Vietnamese producer and a Vietnamese sound engineer with maybe 20 words of English between them do their best to keep my reading synched with the action.

Here are some examples of the 'dialog' I recorded yesterday for a Vietnamese comedy about diabetics whose title in Vietnamese was probably something like "Sugar Junkies," but which was rendered by the translator as "People in Thirst for Sweet":

· Damn it, I can not find him when he's in need
· What a bad thing it is

· Alcohol is my best friend
· How good you say so...look at your rash face peeling off lots of scrab, alcohol will burn your liver as well

· It doesn't worth much
· That's not quite exactly

· Are you killing him? Diabetics would die if taking this kind of juice. Take it away.

· You can not ignore it, regardless your sweet thirsty, you're surely diseased.

· You should change your character to be at ease, you should not angry when being serous diseased.

· Anything poisonous and being in wine burial will take much effect by its contrary use, understand?

· Your pulse gets stuck, outside pulses ruined by hot liver, but it doesn't matter, will be ok.

· I'm dead already, but please don't tell my wife, I have to conceal my wife to treat it.

· I don't talk about electricity, don't misunderstand my opinion. Where is Phan? He's gone for his own business?

· It is not late now but in the long term I can be.

· I think if you drink again, it will be sometimes better, the job is done well, not as present.

· Does your car have something wrong that you have to mortify your body like this?
· I'm training the health exercise.

· Such a greedy, drunk, and oversexed he is!

· Anything happens, please tell us, don't abuse indirectly.

· Some days ago I saw him bring here many tennis tools.

The challenges of this job are manifold:

· read each line of dialog with feeling and expression as if it actually meant something
· resist guffawing
· resist thinking about the perplexed passengers trying to decipher this excruciating nonsense during their Vietnam Airlines flight from Ha Noi to Singapore

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Phu Quoc

I know it's been a while since I posted a blog. Xin loi—sorry. When I first came to Hanoi, I had a lot more time for blogging, because I didn't know anybody here and my new expatriate life was pretty basic—sleep, eat, work, look around. But you know how life likes to fill in the empty spots, and when those are full, it fills them in some more. You don't even have to plant a seed to have a jungle grow in your front yard. I know there are choices that can be made and some people do seem to keep their lives nicely ordered. But life will keep coming after you like beggar children on the streets of Bombay, and unless you mount a fierce counterattack, your life becomes something of a mob scene with little leisure for reflection or narration.

I'm only able to write these few lines right now because I've stepped to the sidelines for a moment. I'm sitting on the veranda of a little beach bungalow on the island of Phu Quoc, 4 kms from the Cambodian coast, where I've retreated for a week to clear my head and see if I can't catch you up on what's been happening in my life. Even here, far from Hanoi, with my mobile phone turned off and no Internet connection, there are endless distractions: other guests approach you wanting to swap travel stories and invite you to go searching out waterfalls with them; beach vendors approach you to sell you a snorkeling trip or a massage; the pretty girls who clean bungalows in the morning and wait tables at the beach cafe in the afternoon approach you to find out where you're from and how old you are; the old Frenchman who's been here 12 years wants you to play a game of chess with him; the clean sandy beach, the massive white clouds, the clear warm water, the shocking sunset keep calling you and calling you, eroding your will to resist.

There's another thing, too, that's kept me from blogging recently. It's not just the number of things happening. It's the kind of things—personal things, that can't easily be talked about in a public forum, where the people involved, and acquaintances of the people involved, are quite likely to read what I've written and regret my sharing it. This is where the broadcast nature of a blog loses its advantage over private emails. Consequently, I'm deciding even as I write this to fashion a new reporting strategy that will involve email lists in addition to the blog. Stay tuned for details. In the meantime, I'll continue to post photos here—lots of them. I have a really cool new camera (Nikon Coolpix P90) and my snapshot output is through the roof.

To catch you up briefly, here are some of the highlights of the past three months:

My lone class at Language Link ended the last week of April. It may resume toward the middle of June, but nothing is certain. Things got a little unravelled near the end of the term. For some reason, Language Link scheduled the final exam 10 days before the last class meeting. I could see what was coming and no avail. After taking their final, most of the students stopped showing up. The last week of classes was anemic and sparsely attended. There were only four students on the final day, which is traditionally given over to an end-of-term party, so I cancelled the party and sent them home.

I've become very fond of my private students Toni and Duong. They're both preparing to attend universities abroad and are two very bright, motivated, fun-loving young people. Sometimes we abandon the apartment to practice English at a cafe. Recently, they included me in a four-day trip to Sapa, a popular mountain resort town, with a few of their friends from school. I'll let the photos I took tell the story. Toni has adopted me and now calls me 'dad'.

Van, a former student of mine, adopted me a few months earlier. To her, I'm 'ba' and I call her 'con' ('child'). We chat online and meet occasionally for lunch, at a pizza restaurant near her office, or at the home of her friend Ha. Ha's nickname online is 'meo con', which means 'kitten'. I call her 'little cat', so she calls me 'big tiger'.

Thai Thu, who manages my favorite restaurant in Hanoi, has become a good friend because I go there so often. Festa, an Italian restaurant with a Vietnamese staff, has good wine, great bread, and pizza as good as any I've had in the US. Unfortunately, the restaurant's going out of business soon—not for lack of business, but due to personal issues of the joint owners. I don't know where I'm going to get my red wine and pesto fix from now on.

Thu, my tutor, and I continue to meet twice weekly for Vietnamese lessons, usually in Language Link's conference room but sometimes at her family's house. You'd think I'd speak a little Vietnamese by this time—but I don't. I have much to say about the reasons for this, which I'll save for another post, except to say that as a teacher Thu has been patient, creative, and devoted. And generous. She won't accept any payment—not even a cup of coffee—but she never fails to bring me something to eat: a bag of fruit, some sticky rice cakes, candy, apricot syrup, a bag of white rocks that turned out to be tapioca. I'm very fond of Thu, but she's too formal to call me 'ba' or 'dad'. Usually she just calls me 'mister'.

I see Miss Nga almost every day since her little travel agency is only 20 steps from my front door. She booked my air tickets to Phu Quoc and I try to steer business her way every chance I get, but it seems little enough to repay all the coffee, tea, and advice she's given me during the past year.

I still get together with my CELTA colleagues once a week for lunch. Jouke has moved in with Charlie, which is fine with everyone. We like Charlie so well we're happy to include him in all our activities. Mitchell's school chum Ben has arrived, completed the CELTA course, and is now teaching at Language Link with us. Mitchell and Ben now share an apartment that just a few weeks ago was a cafe. The neon cafe sign is still hanging over their front gate. Donna comes and goes—it seems she and her husband Hank are back in the US or off to Singapore nearly every month. Imran has taken on a heavy teaching load, but despite duties at school and duties at home he remains faithful to the group. James, too, shows up occasionally despite a busy social life and a leg still recovering from a nasty motorbike accident earlier this year. For news of Sarah, follow the link to her hilarious blog.

I was coming home from Festa on my bicycle one night when a motorbike pulled alongside me. The man driving said nothing, but the woman on the back offered to come home with me and give me a massage. I told her I was going home to sleep and she offered to come sleep with me. I didn't say 'Fuck off', but I should have. By the time I got home, there were two motorbikes and two prostitutes, who jumped off their bikes and tried to follow me into my building. While I was preventing one from lifting my wallet out of the front right pocket of my jeans, the other was lifting my mobile phone out of the front left pocket, a fact I didn't discover until I was inside and they had both disappeared.

Two days later my bicycle was stolen from the entryway of my building. For the first few months I had the bike, I kept it faithfully locked, but I noticed mine was the only one in the building that was ever locked. Since the entryway itself is kept locked, I decided I was being too paranoid and should save myself the trouble of locking my wheels when they were 'in the garage'. It took a thief about 10 days to discover my vulnerability and exploit it. I think what happened was that one of the building's tenants stepped out to run a quick early morning errand and left the front door ajar. Either that or the thief was a legitimate visitor to the building who happened also to be an opportunist. It was old and I only paid $6 for it, but I liked that bicycle. The one I've bought to replace it isn't nearly as good. (I'll tell you more about it in another post.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Kiss of the Death Devil

You're drifting down a lazy river, trailing one hand in the smooth, glassy water, vaguely aware of a roaring sound off in the distance somewhere. You round a bend and suddenly you're crashing through a maelstrom of rocks, standing waves higher than your head, and rushing, gushing, foaming white water. No, I haven't been rafting this month in the hinterlands of Vietnam. I'm describing how my life has changed since I returned from Dau Vien village at the beginning of February.

My evening classes at Language Link have resumed, of course. And I now have two private students, Toni and Duong, who come to my apartment three times a week in the afternoon. Of course, afternoon is when I edit the news at VOV radio, so there's been some shuffling and scrambling to accommodate everybody.

The editing at VOV has spun off another job for me at a place called Thang Long Audio and Video. One of the translators at VOV creates Manglish subtitles for Vietnamese feature films and documentaries being readied at Thang Long for international distribution. My job is to edit the Manglish subtitles into something approaching English and then—get this—record the subtitles as English 'voiceovers'. I started by doing a documentary on the annual buffalo-stabbing festival of ethnic minority people in the central highlands and followed that with a short documentary about a sacred mountain near Ha Long Bay called Yen Tu, where an ancient Vietnamese king gave up his throne to become a Buddhist monk. 'Narrator voiceovers' sound fairly normal since the documentaries have no dialogue. Last week, though, I did a feature film called 'Kiss of the Death Devil' where my voiceovers were of the more annoying kind—the kind where, instead of actors' voices actually being 'dubbed' by other actors, one person reads the translation of every bit of dialogue in more or less a monotone over each actor's voice. So, for example, you hear yours truly say 'Please, dear husband, save our child' over the voice of a woman crying desperately in Vietnamese, and then, in more or less the same tone of voice you hear me say 'You fool…Why should a Death Devil sacrifice himself for the life of a human?'

This week I edited subtitles and did voiceovers for 'The Punch', a serious drama about a Vietnamese boxer whose life is disrupted by political strife and war. It might sound like fun work, but every profession has its downside. First, there's the serious labor involved in racking your brain to find a more natural way to say 'No one loves cange and stocks but also can't let him influence into the general uprising' or 'Why was it fired branchy?' And then, synching your reading with the on-screen action can be difficult for a number of very good reasons. For one thing, you have to watch the film on a monitor while reading the subtitles from a printed script on the table in front of you, because the subtitles haven't been mixed with the video yet. When one actor speaks off-screen, or speaks with his back to the camera, or when several actors speak at the same time, or when an actor inserts several long pauses into his speech, synching can go awry. A few times I finished reading a subtitle about 20 seconds before the guy on the screen finished talking. The guys at Thang Long don't seem to care much. Almost never were they willing to do a second take. And although they chided me once for rustling my pages, they seemed oblivious to workmen downstairs knocking down a brick wall with sledge hammers and making so much noise I could barely hear the sound track in my head phones.

I'm still studying Vietnamese 2 nights a week with Thu, meeting my CELTA colleagues once a week for lunch, chatting with some combination of Miss Nga, Thai Thu, Hong Ha, or Bich Van every day, corresponding by email with (and correcting the emails of) a growing number of students, taking lots of photographs, editing some articles for Mr. Dai's promotional magazine, trying to keep up with world news on CNN, and reading Don Quixote. It's surprising how much you can accomplish when you have no significant other to erode your productivity with things like nagging you to repair that leaky faucet, arguing about where wet towels should be hung, discussing which restaurant you should go to for dinner, or hugging and kissing you.

By the way, I found out why there are no geckos on the wall of my apartment. There are no geckos because my spider ate them. From time to time, I've caught a movement out of the corner of my eye which I thought might be a shy gecko darting behind the sofa. There is certainly plenty of opportunity for geckos to come and go when my terrace doors are standing open. But to date there have been no confirmed gecko sightings. Then, a few nights ago, I saw crawling up the wall in the sitting room a form too large to be a cockroach (they seldom exceed three inches in length here) and too small to be a rat (they're seldom smaller than a shoe). It turned out to be a spider reminiscent of a tarantula without his fur. It was about the size of my hand. If your hand is bigger than mine, the spider might have been the size of your hand. I thought right away about killing it so I might sleep better at night, but I had no shotgun or flame-thrower and I didn't want to take a chance on simply wounding it, so I called for backup and for the next hour stayed well clear of it (I remembered the jumping spiders at the World Hotel). They say you should never turn your back on a dangerous predator, but I did at one point, and when I turned back it had disappeared. Now I sleep with a heavy book on my night stand (Don Quixote).

Monday, February 9, 2009

Springtime in Hanoi

It's February now and Hanoi is already back to shirtsleeve temperatures. Winter has finished, apparently, before it ever really got started. I did end up buying a winter coat here—Goretex with a fleece lining—and actually put it on a few times, but mostly I've been wearing the coat's removable liner as a light jacket. In three months I've had the heater on in my apartment a total of five times…so much for the brutal Hanoi winter I was warned about.

Did I mention that the Lunar New Year marks the first day of spring in Vietnam? Well, it does, so it will be interesting to see if my students exhibit any sign of spring fever when our class resumes tomorrow. Their teacher definitely has a fever…and a cough…and sniffles. It doesn't seem fair so soon after I weathered that hideous bout of flu at Christmas, but one of my colleagues broke his leg last week and another was critically injured in a xe om accident in Nha Trang, so I'll count my blessings.

I had planned during my time off from school to enroll in a one-day Vietnamese cooking class sponsored by a nearby restaurant. For about the price of a Round Table Pizza, you get to accompany the teacher (the restaurant's chef) to a street market to select and buy ingredients for a three-course meal, then you return to the restaurant where the teacher talks you through preparation and cooking, and then you sit down with teacher and fellow students to share—and, we hope, enjoy—the food you've made.

I went in early one morning and learned that the only students signed up that day had called to say they couldn't make it. I said I'd rather come back another time than be the only student, but the chef persuaded me to at least go with him to the market to get a few things for the restaurant. I watched him shop and took a few photos of eels, snake-head fish, chicken-head gristle birds, and piles of weird (but not nameless, according to Chef Viet) stuff being sold as food—food for humans, I mean. Really.

The next day I was sitting in Nga's very lucky travel agency telling her about all this, when in walked Mr. Dai, the owner of the travel company under whose logo Nga operates. Dai is a young entrepreneur who in eight years has progressed from being a hotel doorman to being the owner of two hotels, a restaurant, several tour operations, and a handful of travel agencies. We chatted for a bit and he invited me to come with him to meet his family and take in a festival in his home village of Dau Vien, about 45 minutes north of Hanoi. Apparently many Vietnamese villages commemorate the arrival of spring with a festival that attracts tourists as well as former residents who come back every year for a reunion with family and friends. Dai only needed to ask once.

The next morning I climbed into a tour bus with Dai's wife and kids and half a dozen members of his staff and we headed over the river and through some suburbs to where the scenery started to take on a more rural aspect. Turning off the main road, we were very quickly surrounded by rice farms. The land here was like a waffle, with rice growing in the low hollows separated by a grid of raised unpaved berms, which our bus negotiated cautiously, sometimes jousting with kids on bicycles or farmers driving odd-looking tractors.

Dau Vien I've been told is a very poor village: tiny farms, poor soil, no industry. I saw an ancient school there. I saw a simple little pagoda. I saw an outdoor stage set up for a show…a motorized carousel…a football terrain…some street vendors selling drinks, snacks, and cheap toys for the kids. But I saw no shops, no gas station, not even a fire station. Come to think of it, I've never seen a fire station in Hanoi, either, which seems odd considering there are frequent power outages and every time the power goes off, you can see open flame lamps and candles appear in every shop doorway and apartment window. I wished I'd brought my camera. Oh wait, I did bring my camera! I'll post some of the photos just as soon as I post this short account.

I started by taking picture of some the cute kids in the crowd. The boys responded to this attention like hungry sharks to chum. I certainly felt like their chum, the way they followed me around, mugging for my camera, interposing themselves between me and anything I aimed the camera at, and working themselves into a gleeful frenzy. The village was picturesque, full of ponds and pigs and ducks amid a labyrinth of narrow walled lanes barely wide enough to accommodate an automobile. The rainbow of costumed women dancing in and out of the pagoda to the beat of drums and gongs played by four monks was a great photo op. But it was really the kids that impressed me most. They may have had TVs at home, but almost certainly no books, video games, or Internet access. The festival air must have made them feel as if a circus had come to town—and I was their elephant.

Dai's family home was a simple affair—essentially, one big room and one small one, with a veranda, a bathroom very reminiscent of a gas station rest room in Elko, Nevada, and a big yard full of trees and chickens. The kitchen sink was a large plastic tub under a 2-foot-high outdoor spigot and the kitchen stove was a stack of bricks piled against the exterior wall of the bathroom. On this stove, Dai's mother cooked dinner for about 20 people, including yours truly.

I won't go into detail about dinner, but I'll tell you this much: I had a fantastic time, and I'll give you my best tip for enjoying yourself the next time you attend a Vietnamese celebration dinner for which the cooks have prepared their most special dishes. Keep your own bowl filled with those items you like best(or that like you best) so that nobody else has room to stick in an item like a pig uturus they feel sure you'd enjoy.

The dinner was eaten on the floor in the main room, of course. In two corners of this room were two big beds. After dinner, the women and children gathered on one bed to gossip and nap. The men divided into two strata. One strata gathered on the other bed to play a card game with strange-looking narrow cards. The srata with pockets full of money remained on the floor and began a fast-paced gambling game so simple I saw at once there could be no skill involved beyond dealing off the bottom of the deck. This is one reason I sat out. Another is that 100,000 dong notes ($6 bills) started flying back and forth at a dizzying rate. Too rich even for this American's blood. The third reason is that I wanted to wander around the village and take a few more pictures.

Within 30 minutes I had received—and accepted—no less than two invitations to have tea and snacks with strangers in their modest but very charming rural homes. One family had no English beyond "Hello. How are you?" The other family contained a young engineering student who could converse in English enough to gossip with me about the first family. This conversation took place, naturally, on the floor, with the young man's parents hanging on every word but showing no sign of understanding any of it. I excused myself when the student's younger brother climbed into bed just behind me and his grandmother climbed into a second bed about three feet closer to the front door. I suppose even at festival time country folk still get up with their chickens.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Deeply in Tet

I don't think I left my apartment on Lunar New Year's Day. I had been led by a number of knowledgeable(-sounding) people to expect a ghost town out there. Besides, the weather was cold and I had all that stockpiled food. Thanh had brought me a beautiful peach blossom branch, Nga had given me a nice little kumquat tree, and Thu had come a long way across town to give me a heavy bag containing Vietnamese fruits, a bottle of Da Lat wine, and some traditional Tet food she had cooked herself. Plus, 'Babe' was on the movie channel. Remember, too, I had been drinking wine and vodka until 3:00am the night before.

The second day of Tet arrived and I recalled an invitation to eat lunch at Imran's house. Imran is my CELTA colleague from Bangladesh, the only CELTA colleague who didn't leave Hanoi for Tet. He lives with his wife Amy and baby daughter Hannah in a beautiful big house near the Red River (Song Hong), the river in whose flood plain Hanoi is built. After a delicious lunch and the most extended conversation in English I've enjoyed in several months, we took ourselves for a walk along the river, which is at low water this time of year. It was a mild day, almost sunny, and when we walked down into the dry portion of the river bed, to my surprise the city seemed to disappear. The area between Imran's neighborhood and the river is still being farmed, with small plots given over to vegetables for the market—or kumquat trees. It has a pleasantly rural feeling and I envied Imran's easy access to running trails flanked by miniature fields and tiny orchards instead of exhaust-spewing buses and herds of tourists.

Speaking of herds, there were three or four water buffalo that had been tethered at intervals along the river bank by some farmer taking a few hours off to enjoy his Tet. One buffalo was bawling in a distressed fashion. When we got closer we saw that his rope, strung through his nostrils in the usual fashion, had gotten wrapped around a low bush and he was kneeling with his nose a foot from the bush, unable to stand up or get himself free. After a short struggle, during which he looked as nervous as I felt, I was able to untangle his rope so he could move again. The first thing he did was resume eating grass and walking slowly around and around the troublesome bush. I saw it was only a short-lived freedom I had given him, but it still must count as a good deed worth some good karma points, I figure, this new year being the Year of the Water Buffalo and all.

On the third day of Tet I was once again an honored dinner guest at the house of the father of my teacher Thu. Most Vietnamese follow the custom (now gaining popularity among Americans) of removing their shoes/sandals at the front door and slipping on house slippers/sandals so that street schmutz doesn't get tracked onto the dining room table/floormat. I'm experienced enough now to have brought my own house sandals to Thu's, but not experienced enough to remove them before sitting down to dinner. Make a note: if you sit cross-legged on a floor for any length of time, you don't want to have on your feet anything harder than a pair of socks.

At this point I have a sad confession to make. Much as I'd like to say I'm in Anthony Bourdain's league when it comes to dauntless appreciation of new foods, the truth is that even after decades of steady eating, my palate, stomach and gag reflex are still pretty much those of your average sheltered, white, American, middle-class kid raised on PB&J sandwiches, potato chips, and Kool-Aid. Although I did my best for about 30 minutes to chew, swallow, and even savor every delicacy placed in my bowl by my generous hosts, in the end the ugly American in me won out. After eating several crunchy black pork colons and two items that looked (and tasted) like strips of gristle tied in a granny knot around an Irishman's knuckle, I finally admitted out loud to my gracious hosts that I didn't really care for those dishes, just so I wouldn't have to eat any more of them.

I pedaled my bicycle back home through a light rain and light traffic. Tet has brought a brief respite from the motorized chaos of the past few weeks. The predictions I'd heard of a total shutdown in city commerce, though, were exaggerated. I've discovered that many of my favorite restaurants stayed open every day of Tet, as did many other businesses that cater to visiting tourists. Even on my street—Toy Street—which has few eateries or souvenirs shops, about 20-30% of the shops continued to open every day. I hope this isn't an indication that Vietnamese family traditions, which have survived centuries of war and decades of communism, are now starting to erode under the pressures of market capitalism.

Tet 'N Us

For weeks, all of Hanoi has been in the sway of the biggest holiday of the year—Tet—which, like Christmas, is a time to decorate the home with traditional symbols (fruit-laden kumquat trees and budding peach tree branches), gather family together (some Vietnamese travel thousands of miles to rejoin relatives), exchange exuberant greetings (chuc mung nam moi!), enjoy excessive meals of seasonal dishes and delicacies (more about this later), observe devotional rituals (burn incense and offer prayers to various gods and departed ancestors), give gifts (small sums of money or something to eat, rather than consumer electronics or sports equipment), and put work on hold while you party with friends.

My colleagues were nearly unanimous in insisting I ought to leave Hanoi for Tet on the grounds that everything—schools, restaurants, shops, everything— would be shut down during this very family-oriented time, and I would die of boredom if not starvation before the city got back to normal. Following their own advice, they took off for places like Thailand and Malaysia, leaving me on my own to stock my pantry and brace for the ordeal.

The press of people jamming the streets in the runup to Tet seemed to melt away on the final day or so, a result no doubt of millions of office workers shifting into party mode and staying home from the office. My students, who are mostly office workers themselves, made a collective decision to cancel our final class before Tet in order to get a headstart on the holiday, but gave me fair warning so I could stay home, too. Then, halfway through our next to last class, they made a collective decision to cut out early, but insisted on dragging me across the street to a big restaurant in order to get a headstart on the holiday beer drinking. I don't remember everything that happened in that restaurant, but it seems to me that by the end of the evening they had all finally learned to speak English. Either that or I had learned to speak Vietnamese.

Lunar New Year's Eve found me dining alone at my favorite Italian restaurant. Or rather, dining after a fashion with two Aussie blokes at the next table who had just received a wrong pizza when I came in. They were sending it back as I sat down, but, seizing the moment, I offered to take the pizza myself, thereby solving a small problem for the restaurant, lightening the moment for the gentlemen, and eliminating a 15-minute wait for my dinner. The Aussies were sufficiently pleased by my gesture to keep up a friendly conversation with me for the next 45 minutes as we ate, and the beautiful young woman who manages the place rewarded me with a complimentary glass of wine and a complimentary tiramisu. The Aussies have since left town, but that evening may still have been the start of a beautiful friendship. I've returned to eat pizza several times since and Thai Thu, if she's reading this, will know that my visits are motivated by her company, her cooking, and least of all by the complimentary glasses of wine she continues to offer me.

Shortly before midnight I went home, grabbed my camera, and struggled through the crowd streaming down to Hoan Kiem Lake for the big fireworks display. The photos I took that night have been displayed on this blog page for over a week now. When the fireworks ended I headed home, stopping in at Nga's travel agency which was open at midnight so she could carry out a good luck ritual. Many businesses do this at the Lunar New Year. They fill a tray with offerings to the gods—vodka, beer, cigarettes, snacks, a whole cooked chicken with a rose in its beak. Then they pray and burn some fake money in a can. After midnight, they invite a lucky person to be the first person to cross their threshold in the new year, thus insuring good luck for the business throughout the year. Then they eat the luck-imbued chicken and snacks, smoke the lucky cigarettes (they should buy Lucky Strikes), and drink the lucky booze. I was only the second person of the year through Nga's doorway, but I was on hand to drink a third of a bottle of lucky vodka before staggering home around 3:00am to enjoy my first lucky drunken slumber of the lunar year.

I woke up late on Lunar New Year's Day with no ill effects from the vodka, having had the presence of mind to take several Ibuprofen the night before (experience can sometimes be as valuable as luck) and spent a relaxing day watching movies and sampling my large stockpile of Tet food.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A vacation from my vacation

I've been having this dream. In the dream, I'm on vacation somewhere far to the east of Caucasia. It's winter and everybody is bundled up in parkas and woolen mufflers, yet the temperature never falls much below 50F/10C. All the women in the dream are beautiful and have, no matter what their age, the slim body of a teenage girl. They smile at me and treat me as if I were…not Brad Pitt exactly, but maybe Harrison Ford, describing me with words like 'handsome, sexy, stylish, confident'. The men, far from appearing threatened by all the female attention I attract, call me 'strong, healthy, robust, jolly' and clamor to be my friend. Little children call 'hello, hello' whenever they see me on the street.

In the dream I'm on vacation, but the vacation seems to be perpetual. I never have to go back to a job. Instead, I meet a few times a week with some of the friendly, happy young dream people and they pay me to teach them how to talk like me—pay me enough, in fact, that I can live the life of a tourist week after week: sample strange foods, explore and photograph exotic locales, soak in the strange sights and sounds of an unfamiliar place. Occasionally, as if my life weren't easy enough, I get a vacation from the vacation—like this week and next, when I don't have to do much except eat and relax. Some of my friends are going out of town, but life here is so good, I wonder why they would bother.

I float around the streets on a bicycle and—you know how dreams are—people crash all around me, but nothing bad ever happens to me. I see strange, Hieronymus Bosch kinds of images every day. I saw a man with six bushel-sized bags of something stacked on the seat of his motor bike, him perched on the back edge of the seat, lying forward on the bags to reach the distant handle bars, feet sticking out behind like twin rudders as he zoomed through the traffic.

I saw six young men the size of jockeys erect a five-story brick and concrete building in three months, working in sandals without hardhats or gloves. They had no crane, no hoist, no scaffolding, and their only power tool was a Skilsaw. They didn't even have a tub to mix their cement in. One guy would dump a bag of dry cement on the sidewalk, make a depression in the center and pour a little water into the depression from a hose. Then he'd start moistening the cement powder from the inside to the outside, adding more water as necessary and being careful to maintain a donut shape so the water wouldn't escape. When the cement was the right consistency, he'd trowel it onto a big scrap of plywood and somebody else would carefully hoist it up to the top of the building with a rope. The young men lived on the construction site 24/7 and often worked past midnight, toiling by the light of a nearby streetlamp since their only worklight was a single 40-watt bulb.

As you can see, the dream is richly detailed and often fools me into thinking I'm awake. I know it's a dream, though, because a few details give it away. In the dream, Cynthia and I are divorced and Clark is married. Also, the U.S. President is John F. Kennedy—only in the dream he's African-American and has an African/Muslim name.