Saturday, December 14, 2013

A year in movies: 2013

(A short list of all the movies I saw in the theatre or on airplanes this year)

The Good: 
Pacific Rim*: Disappointingly i had to watch it on the airplane but it was good cheesy fun with a strong female lead. Robots! Giant monsters! Hope to see it on the big screen one day.

Gravity - IMAX 3D - what a sensory adventure. I saw it after 3 months living back in time in Burma and was just blown away. Well worth the extra money for IMAX.

Catching Fire: The Hunger Games 2- very good escapist and dark but still moving. Love the female lead. Curious to see how they will do book 3. And I'll miss Lenny Kravitz.

Which Way to the Front Line: Documentary on Tim Hetherington - really moving but perhaps more for his friends as a way to remember him than a real expose on his work. But I wept to see his promise ended so soon.

Zero Dark Thirty: Also very intense and gripping. It was a good film and well acted. A bit too close for comfort with the Pakistan explosions.

Mud: Great movie and performance by Matthew McConaughey. Really Oscar worthy - and great child actors too. Made me sort of home sick for South Carolina.

Silver Linings Playbook: Such a great movie! Bradley Cooper can act! Jennifer Lawrence was great but mostly I just love the director David O. Russell.

Bernie*: Saw on the airplane to Tokyo - really funny, really well acted, hysterical and so true of the South.

End of Watch*: Great performances by Jake Gyllenhal and Freddie Pena. I was really moved by this movie.

The Okay: 
Wolverine: I liked it more than i thought I would because it was set in Japan and I went there this year. But I didn't understand the end at all!

Despicable Me 2: Cute and good for some giggles. I liked the minions and the Macho villain.

World War Z: So disappointing compared to the book but on its own - it stands up as okay. B-. But WHO saves the world??? God help us.

Warm Bodies: Surprisingly romantic - saw it on Valentine's Day in Bangkok surrounded by 100 couples.

Jack the Giant Slayer: Could have been more charming but still fun

Mama** (actually saw it on the bus on my visa run to Cambodia but it was still playing in the theatre!) Good gothic fun and creepy premise.

The Boring: 
Midnight's Children: What a long and rambling boring movie.... I'm sure the book was much more interesting. The actors were not good, the plot was a bit draggy, and all of the interesting things got glossed over.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters* - too gory and not nearly as much fun as it should have been. I find Jeremy Renner very dull and don't think he should be a lead.

Side Effects*: Was hoping that Jude Law would lift it but Rooney Mara is such a dull actress. I didn't buy it at all.

Bachelorette Party: Boring, crass, borderline offensive. But Kirsten Dunst is awesome!

Frank and the Robot: Not funny, not a crime caper, and instead a really depressing take on Alzheimers.

Beautiful Creatures: Set in South Carolina, supernatural romance between two hot teens, sultry scenary chewing by Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson but still dull dull dull.

Still hoping to see before the end of the year: 
American Hustle

The Hobbit 2

12 Years a Slave

Inside Llewyn Davis



The World's End


Favorite Xmas Songs (playlist)

Glitzy Christmas Trees of Bangkok

I made a playlist of all my favorite Xmas songs that I play on my iPod throughout the holiday season. I sort of have a thing for Xmas songs - mostly soul and country music but with a big dose of pop from the 80s! I hope you enjoy it!

Favorite Xmas Songs (playlist)

Friday, August 30, 2013

Monsoon Living in the footsteps of George Orwell


Aerial view of Rakhine State.
I am sitting in rainy monsoon struck Myanmar (i.e. Burma but we’re not allowed to say that because that’s politically not supporting the current regime) in Rakhine State (formerly known as Arakan State) where I’m working with the Muslim population of internally displaced people (or as they call themselves, the Rohingya – but we’re not allowed to call them that because that acknowledges that they are an ethnic group that belongs to Myanmar and not a bunch of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as the government calls them).

Sittwe Town from my hotel
Sittwe is a beautiful little village. Just what you imagine a rural decrepit town in Myanmar/Burma might look like. Old colonial houses dripping with dark patches of damp, overgrown and lush green gardens, gorgeous mango trees and coconut palms and people walking by in their lungis with things balanced on their heads and carrying umbrellas to shelter them from the rain and the sun. There is a golden stupa in the middle of town with a giant golden standing Buddha next to it peeking out over the top of the tree canopy and gazing at the Bay of Bengal.  The sense of neglect is visible in all the buildings, the few newer ones are garish and cheap looking with that weird reflecting tinted windows that seems so common in the Middle East and China. There aren’t many cars here. People can travel around town on bicycle-driven rickshaws  where they can sit two very very thin people – not Americans- , one facing each way and the bicyclist wearing a conical bamboo hat, cycles alongside you. Or there are lovely Burmese ladies perched on the back of bicycles always carrying an umbrella to shade themselves from the sun or rain. Or you can ride in a “tuktuk”. These are different than the ones in Bangkok - more of a sort of truck bed with two benches in it and a canvas streteched over the top driven by a motorcycle or a tractor . There are a few scooters and the cars that are here are old jeeps or Landrovers from the NGOs. Men wear button down shirts, flip flops, and lungis – the patterned long piece of material that they wrap around their waist and constantly have to adjust. Many women wear traditional dress and put this pale yellow clay on their faces to protect it from the sun and wear flowers in their hair. There are police and military officers as checkpoints all over the city. The sense of a military dictatorship is still very prevalent as we all have to wait on travel authorizations and permits to leave the town.

Riding to work in the rain

I am supposed to call this country Myanmar (its official name) but I like saying Burma better and most of the human rights activists still call it Burma because that was its name before the military coup and dictatorship here. I spent a week in Yangon – the capitol (formerly known as Rangoon). Yangon is lovely – very green and lush and I’m lucky to have been able to sublet a beautiful old house with a garden. I posted some photos on facebook of the orchids in the garden. I’ve also been reading George Orwell’s Burmese Days from when he was a
colonial policeman here and Finding George Orwell in Burma which retraces his footsteps and analyzes Burma during the height of the military regime (before the recent “reforms”). “Everyone falls in love with Burma except George Orwell” claims the author and I think she might be right. Yangon is a beautiful city and as far away from the skyscrapers and malls and convenience of Bangkok as it can possibly be - definitely more my style than Bangkok. Maybe I’ll get a job here and settle down for a bit which is what I would like.  However, people are
still quite terrified of the authoritarian regime, no matter what the “reforms” say so it’s an odd feeling to be part of the lucky who are benefiting from the opening of Burma and not really aware of the realities of the regular Burmese. And although I love colonial architecture, thinking about the abuses that took place here under colonialism puts a damper on tea or gin and tonics at the Strand.

Rohingya man in IDP camp
In Sittwe where the humanitarian crisis is  - it definitely feels like the place that time forgot. Time moves slowly here and I’ve had to detox (which is a good thing for me!) - I’ve maybe had internet access for 6 hours of the week since I’ve been here and I was issued a mobile phone that works very poorly so I feel very cut off from the world.
Poor little UNFPA, the UN agency that has hired me as a consultant, is relegated to an old storage facility in the basement of a building. The room reeks of mildew and has no ventilation as its two windows open onto the latrine and a garage where they park cars. I am outraged on behalf of my national counterpart – a young Myanmar doctor who is pregnant with her first child. She’s energetic and smart and working really hard with almost no support.  I’ve started squatting upstairs in the UNDP office and spending as much time on the balcony as
possible to breathe in the fresh air when it is not raining and using the time when I have the internet to lobby for a cleaning woman, a dehumidifier, and better office space. We don’t have our own car either so I travel by “tuktuk” to my meetings –it’s a far cry from most of the NGOs which have normal offices and houses and cars here. I
don’t mind the hardship of crappy offices. I’ve worked in tents, in mud huts, and in skyscrapers. A desk is a desk after all  - but the crappy office is a bit of a symbol of how little attention and care is given to the needs of the women who are displaced here in Rakhine State, in my mind. Of all the UN agencies in emergencies, UNFPA is one of the smallest. It doesn’t receive much money from the donors and its’ staff don’t seem to know how to respond to humanitarian emergencies – there is NO urgency. The staff in Yangon don’t prioritize the hinterlands and every request for something is challenged or ignored. Ahhh – life in the field. It’s frustrating being a consultant because I have no power at all but I’m going to use my voice to lobby for a healthier work place for my colleague. After all, I leave in 2 months but she has to work here.

UNFPA office - behind garage
If you haven’t read about it, here’s a brief synopsis: the humanitarian crisis here is a symptom of ethnic and religious violence in Burma – the majority Buddhist population here has been fighting with the Muslim community and burned down their houses and villages in October of 2012 driving them to live in scattered and remote IDP
(internally displaced) camps on rice paddies throughout this area. Most of the Moslems make their living as farmers or fishermen and as you might imagine, living in a rice paddy during the monsoon season is
miserable. I visited one of the best organized camps on Friday and it was very depressing. Because of the rains and the humidity, nothing remains or stays dry, most people only have one set of clothing and the children run around in the mud and rain with nothing but a small pair of shorts on. People have to live 10 to 12 families in a long bamboo thatched hut and most are not free to leave their camps so despair has set in along with the accompanying domestic violence and child beating. That’s why I’m here – to try to support the humanitarian community with training and advice on how to provide services for these women and children.
Rohingya girl
Many of the people are just waiting for the rains to stop so they can try to board really unsafe ships and seek out work in Malaysia, Bangladesh, and next door Thailand (where an immigration official was recently arrested for trafficking them to work on fishing boats as slave labor). They are known as the “Rohingya” and are a separate
ethnic group from the “Rakhines” in this area although they have been here for over 400 years. The Burmese government calls them “Bengalis” and claims they are Bangladeshi citizens and threaten to return them there although most have never been there and have no ties there. They are basically stateless (not recognized as an official ethnic group in Burma and therefor have no citizenship and belong to no government), persecuted by the governments of neighboring countries as well as the government here and are unwanted by everyone. It’s a really tough situation with no real solution at hand.

Rohingya boys in IDP camps
However, it’s a great group of people working here. The humanitarian world is really small – I got here and word got around and an Italian colleague from MSF who I met in Colombia in 2009 reached out to me and invited me to dinner last Friday night which was nice as there’s not much else to do in Sittwe. There is a movie theatre here but I think it only shows local films and is un-airconditioned (in this humidity and heat –it would be like sitting in a steam room with 100 people and watching a movie). There are a few local restaurants and tea houses but since its raining like mad, I’ve basically been holed up this weekend in my hotel room watching the BBC World coverage of the unrest in Cairo and Battlestar Galactica on my computer and reading training manuals and reports. I’ve caught up on any sleep I was missing in Thailand which is nice but I miss Simon, the Siamese cat and a variety of food. They have interesting salads here – and I am fond of a seaweed salad with sesame seeds and chilis that they make here. But mostly they use half a bottle of cooking oil to make anything here and
the food is swimming in oil and not very flavorful although seafood is plentiful since we’re on the sea so I eat squid and shrimp every day. I have been dreaming of spaghetti Bolognese and chocolate bars. But actually I’d be happy to have a big green salad.
IDP camp of Rakhine Buddhists also displaced during fighting
Well that’s it from here -  not much news to report. One year down as an independent consultant and the future is still unclear. I’ve got another 6 weeks work in Burma and then I’m back to Thailand where I’m presenting a paper and chairing a panel at an international conference on sexual violence. Then it’s back to Papua New Guinea for another month’s worth of work and then I’m free! I’m not enamored with the life as a consultant. The supposed “freedom” is not there yet as I still feel like I have to hustle for work and can’t turn anything down but I prefer being busy to not having enough to do. I think that makes me go a bit crazy. I still think I’d like to find an interesting
permanent job and settle down and stop traveling so much in 2014. I’ve been thinking of going back to graduate school – maybe in public health or social work but I’d also just like to have a steady job in a nice organization with a decent office and a nice house so I can hang out with Simon LeBon and have a normal life again. What’s that like? It’s been fun running around Asia but I’m a bit tired of always being on the move and fantasize about taking classes and setting up a routine and getting bored and longing for travel. It’s a vicious cycle, I guess!

Work Commute

Friday, May 03, 2013

Rebuttal to 10 Things Americans Don't Know about America


There's a blog post going around on Facebook that three of my favorite Americans in the Netherlands have posted and commented on approvingly.

It's written by an American living in Germany who wants us to know "10 Things Most Americans Don't Know About America".

You can read it here.

He posits that we're basically ignorant about geography, think that everyone loves us or hates us, are poor at expressing gratitude (which he rather confusingly equates with women feel free to tell him to fuck off when he hits on them in the US), the quality of life in the US is not that great, the rest of the world is not a shithole, we're paranoid, status-obsessed, unhealthy, and equate comfort with happiness.

I disagree with his points 1 (noone is impressed by us), 6 (the rest of the world is not a shithole), and 7 (we're paranoid). I'm a humanitarian aid worker born of a British mother and American father who has lived in Europe for 4 years and Asia for 2 years. I've traveled extensively and been throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and some of the Pacific and Latin America. My opinion may be influenced by the fact that I spend a lot of time in slums and refugee camps with abused women.

For number 1, I have actually found that when I travel and people learn I am from America, they go out of their way to tell me how much they want to go there or how much they admire it. Perhaps its politeness but the USA has a hold on the imaginations of people around the world. Its also the most desired destination for people who cannot return home to their countries and are seeking third country placement. Also, in grad school for a research methods class, I did a qualitative project in a major 5 star hotel interviewing "immigrants" who worked there (almost everyone was!) about their perception of the USA and Americans. It was strongly influenced by where they came from. Northern Europeans with their social support system (cheaper education, healthcare, and beautiful cafes!) were hyper critical of the US. People who escaped repressive regimes, desperate poverty, and war were much more accepting of the US and its flaws and were grateful to have the opportunity to be there. If you compare our healthcare to Sweden or the nicest hospitals in Asia, we suck. If you compare them to the desperate places in Liberia, Haiti, or the Congo - we look pretty darn good. But even those critical Northern Europeans loved our music, our way of life, driving across the USA in a convertible and buying cowboy boots. They just didn't like to admit it openly. And the Brits I've met are the MOST critical about the USA! What British people is this guy meeting?

Also for number 6 (we think the rest of the world is a shit hole), for many of the people around the world, there is still such a thing as the American dream and they want a part of it. This may be because the places I go as compared to the author are almost always wartorn or suffering rather than cool bars in Hamburg and Berlin in Europe (its a German blog - I get to the cool bars in Hamburg and Berlin as much as I can). And the line in Bangkok (where I live) outside the US embassy for visas is always long and always busy - even if we have awesome cineplexs here, people still long for a country without corrupt police, politics, and fear of warfare (there is actually armed conflict in the South of Thailand). The wifi tuktuks are in Sukhumvit or Khao San where the tourists are  - if you are really in the know, you take a motorcycle taxi or a taxi because you don't want to be stuck in the  shitty traffic breathing exhaust when you can whiz between the lanes of traffic or sit in the a/c checking your own phone through Thailand's excellent 3G network.

And while he says most places are not as shitty as we imagine them to be, some are much worse... there are actually dangerous, awful parts of the world. Yes, people are friendly but Americans are also renowned as some of the friendliest people on earth. If you talk to aid workers or soldiers, they will always mention how hospitable and friendly the US contingents are... although hospitality is a trait that most of the world shares. The only place I have found people to be shockingly inhospitable has been the Netherlands where (as most taxi drivers there told me)  a dutch person will famously tell you that its dinnertime so its time for you to leave their house.

I put the fear that Americans have about other countries down to the fact that the US is a big country and its expensive for many to travel. And that fear sells the media - how often do you hear good stories about other countries? Or even our own? Most Americans aren't forced into foreign travel by economic desperation - like a lot of the rest of the world - so they aren't confronted with their misconceptions. This is a trivial little example but I was watching Flight of the Conchords last night and their mother in New Zealand was worrying about them in NYC and asking if they need a gun. The US is actually not as awful and dangerous as many Europeans seem to think it is. Many of them come to the US and react with surprise at how much they liked it!

Finally number 7 - we're paranoid due to our media but also amazing naive in foreign countries. We blithely think we won't be touched by the crime and corruption in other countries. But this also strikes me as white privilege.  I heard some stories a few months ago about african-americans in Europe who were beaten up and almost deported by the police in Greece (despite being professors who were traveling there). Some Americans in Dubai, Qatar and Thailand and have been shocked to find themselves on the wrong side of the law and detained indefinitely in the shitty prisons in these countries - there is a news story in Thailand about a man who had a dispute with his landlord and has een detained in Thailand for 9 years! And the stories you hear about what happens to travelers who don't happen to be rich enough (thanks to our great but floundering US economy) throughout the rest of the world will make your hair curl. Bangladeshis, Indians, Filipinos, and Sri Lankans who travel to the Middle East hoping to make money to support their families back home live in appalling conditions and are desperately treated. It's thanks to our economic privilege and probably due to the color of our skins that we can travel around and be treated well in other countries. Like the US, all countries have good and bad people living in them. But normally, we get to experience it through our privilege.

A friend who commented on Facebook like me also pointed out his very sexist assumption about women too. In many countries, women have no choice but to be friendly to some dude who comes up to them on the street and hits on them in such an obvious way - they are afriad they'll be raped or attacked if they don't play along and act nice. And the sexual and physical violence that women face in many of the countries in the world is shocking and heart breaking.

TL:DR - the author is shocking in his naivete about the rest of the world and bases his opinions most probably on his experiences in the privileged white world of the middle class American traveler who can afford to rent nice apartments in the nice parts of town (usually the expat part of town) and thinks he's discovered that the US is awful.

The USA might not be the best country in the world but its still a great country - it has a lot to change and a lot to address (like everyone else here has said - healthcare! guns!). I was feeling the same way about wondering why the US was so nuts now with the politics and the violence until I went back home with open eyes to participate in our electoral process to elect our African-American president who was raised in Indonesia, Hawaii, Kansas, California, and NYC. There was nary a riot. There was singing and smiling in the electoral center where i went in Sumter, SC where predominantly African Americans lined up to re-elect Barry Obama, the whitest guy in town.

The USA is great! Food trucks! Great new live music everywhere - from the blues to jazz to rock and roll! The organic food revolution - which has been going on in South Carolina since at least the 90s when I was working in an organic food market! The streams of different cultures that have all put their own stamp on what being American is (a Korean bulgogi taco served with a Belgian beer in South Carolina!) but if you look at the level of innovation and creativity going on in the USA and stop just watching the news media about it and go visit. I apologize in advance for our immigration officers at the airport... but its not such a bad place.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Art, Music and Literature that made an impression in 2012

A few of the pieces of art, literature, and music that I liked and that inspired me in 2012. 

Literature

Kate Atkinson: Behind the Scenes in the Museum
William Boyd: Waiting for Sunrise
Graham Greene: A Burnt-Out Case
Hillary Mantel: Wolf Hall
Marguerite Duras: The Lover

Art: 

Contemporary Vietnamese Artists from Apricot Gallery in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City:
Trang Nguyen Dung 
Quach Dong Phuong
Hoang Hai Anh

Le Minh
Dai Hong Phong
Le Quang Ha
Ta Thi Thanh Tam

Tran Luu Hau

Ateneum in Finland: Helene Schjerfbeck retrospective



Modigliani and Soutine at the Pincotheque de Paris




Pre-Raphaelites in Tate Britain


Music: 

Austra: Lose It



Honey Claws: Digital Animal



The Civil Wars: Kingdom Come



The Storm: My Crown


The Frank Popp Ensemble: Breakaway!



Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Sunday, March 03, 2013

BRAINS: Bi-Annual Report of the Assessment of Income Needs


The head of mission stumbled back to the office. It'd been a long day at the ministry of health's office and everyone just moved so slowly, barely making eye contact, mumbling in some strange language. They were never fast on the best of days and today, they seemed to be barely animate - slumped on desks sleeping, and shuffling around in the back offices.  The MOH never bothered to come out of the office to greet him - he was often 2 or 3 hours late for meetings and it would be unforgivably rude to leave since the organization needed his approval to open a new clinic. After 7 hours, he gave up and returned back to the office. The roads were strangely empty - the normal Thursday night activities all seemed to be canceled and doors appeared to be bolted and no one was around.

It was late already and the staff had headed home so he had the office to himself. "I'm going to have to talk to security tomorrow morning, " he thought abstractedly, "I forgot to do security check radio call this evening and they never called me. In fact - there didn't seem to be anyone on the gate when I drove in. Weird. Security has really done down hill in the past few weeks. Lots of guards just not returning after their first night shift. Unacceptable"

"I'll just check some emails from HQ and respond before going to the house," he thought. Logging on, he turned on the radio and there was nothing but static. Odd he thought. He then checked his phone to see if there were any texts... just a few stupid ones from the Deputy HOM. "What an airhead she is," he thought. All the text said was: BRAINS. "What is this? Some new stupid acronym I have to learn? Oh SHIT, Its the Bi-Annual Report of the Assessment of Income Needs. Shit. I need to work on that stupid report. Its due tomorrow. Shit shit shit. Well, if I pretend I never saw the email, I can buy some time. "

The slow email finally loaded - nagging reports from HQ again - BRAINS! WE NEED BRAINS! Another nagging email reminding him that the 8Month report was 2 weeks past due. And three messages from Finance telling him the tranche was delayed because he needed to send the BRAINS report. Same old same old. "No message from my girlfriend," he thought angrily "she's probably out at a party, hanging out with that jerk Marc in HQ who thinks he's so great because he has a goatee. Damn, I wish I was back at HQ having a beer with the guys from procurement rather than here filling out the BRAINS report.  WHen the hell is HR going to get me a financial officer to help with these stupid unnecessary reports? I haven't even been out to the clinic in weeks to see what is going on with that strange new illness that they are struggling with out in the mobile site. Typical - I became an aid worker to help people and all I do is kill trees to write stupid reports."

He searched in vain for the email that outlined the format for the BRAINS report." Elena, the deputy probably downloaded it onto her computer he thought... typical. And of course she goes home early every Thursday.". A strange moaning sound caught his attention. It appeared to be coming from the driver's shed. He walked out to the shed - "Hey guys, could you turn down the TV? I'm trying to work." he started as he turned the corner... strangely the tv was off and no one was in the shed. "Weird." He saw a shuffling movement in the trees. "Is that you Fidele? Have you seen Elena?" he called. A muffled groan replied.

"Look - I'm looking for the BRAINS form. Do you know where it might be?"  "BRAINNNSSSSS" came the reply. "Yes, the BRAINS form. Know where it is?" "BRAINNNNNNSSSSSSS" came a louder reply. "Yes! I need to turn it in by tomorrow. Can you help me?" "BRAINNNNNSSSSSS" came the answer.

"Shit. Fine. I'll figure it out myself." he said. "Dickhead. Serves me right for asking a log admin to do something beyond organizing the cleaning schedule." Turning around, he returned to the office - the shuffling shape moved deeper into the driver's shed.

Arriving back in his office - he heard some paper shuffling in Elena's office. "Hey! You are back!" he said turning the corner into her office. But it wasn't Elena. It was....

something much much worse....

He began to back away slowly - "no, it can't be! no! No!" he mumbled in horror backing up again.

"Brainnnnssssss" came the reply from the ghoul behind the desk.

"BRAINNNSSSSS" it hissed in a hideous moan revealing rotted teeth and putrid breath.

He began to cry and fall slowly to the floor. It was all over. "The horror - the horror!" he thought. "there's no escaping my fate now."

The head of finance had caught the early flight in. No one had informed him. The BRAINS report would not be denied..

Friday, March 01, 2013

How the media harms one survivor of rape

Please read this article called:  Salacious, voyeuristic, insensitive: How the media harms one survivor of rape | Women Under Siege Project.

I just learned about it and the author, Lauren Wolfe, is speaking at the UN on March 6 at 10am about this issue. If you are in NYC, please go!

A really important article that talks about the media's morbid fascination with rape and desire to exploit survivors. Of course this media is also driven by the general public. I was horrified to read that after hearing about her ordeal, two men felt it necessary to write to her to ask her if she "enjoyed her daily rapes".

Amanda Lindhout is an amazing survivor. Her speaking out helps us fight against this horrible crime. Her foundation, The Global Enrichment Foundation,  works to support peace and development in Somalia. I will be making a donation.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Check out my food blog!




I love food, traveling, photography, and writing! I tried to embrace the four things I love this week and update my blogs.  My food blog "Bleu Cheese and Red Wine" is not updated very regularly. I thought I would write much more about food than I do but now I'm trying to do more of it.

So I have created five posts filled with my Japanese travel's food photos. I won't be putting these on facebook (except for the one's I already instagrammed) since I keep hearing of a backlash about people posting food photos on facebook.

It's very difficult to take good photos of food, I know. I don't flatter myself to be a good food photographer. But I like looking at photos and learning about meals people had that they enjoyed. So I hope you'll enjoy checking out the meals I had in Japan too.

Stay tuned in the next five days to get a post a day about the Food in Kyoto and Tokyo. And feel free to browse further for photos from my trips to Paris, the Loire Valley, Vietnamese and Laos cooking classes, and trips to Thai food courts! 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Days of Wine and Roses


Wine, glorious Wine!

Last night I had dinner with some friends in Thailand. They had invited friends of theirs from Vietnam and so we sat around the table, five Americans. We were drinking prosecco as the Taiwanese-American (no, not me, although I was born in Taiwan) stir-fried chicken and wood mushrooms with a delicious ginger and white vinegar sauce and got to know each other. Aside from the fact that we were all Americans, we also share a love for good food and wine.

Now wine in Thailand is marked up immensely - the same stuff I can find in the US for $20 (which is cheap for the US) or in Europe for about 12 euros is usually about the equivalent of $45 or 30 euros. So wine drinking is not something that you do often in Thailand -despite all the wine bars flourishing on Thong Lor. I had been squirreling away bottles of nice wine in my fridge to share with honored guests everytime I come back from abroad. I had four nice bottles from Australia, a Saint-Emillion and two Sancerres, a Albarino, some California cabernet and zinfandel, two french champagnes (a Veuve and a Mumms), and an Oregon pinot Noir. I had a treasured bottle of Brunello as well. I ration it out to "wine worthy" friends. I'm down to four bottles right now. I pulled out a California Cab to take to the dinner since I liked these people and I thought they would appreciate it.

To celebrate the dinner, my male host brought out a bottle of Opus One. He had received it from a Thai friend one night. Now Opus One has an awesome reputation in my memory. When I was working in the restaurants of Columbia, South Carolina, I was learning about wine. My parents had always liked wine but being from Sumter and of limited means, we purchased "good wines" from the grocery store. My mother had a fondness for French wines and my father liked good cheap Italian wines. They had stories of visiting Spumante in Italy and I have a clay jug that they brought back from one of their wine tastings in the 60s. At the time, I thought Chilean wine for $3 was the height of sophistication and I actually drank Ernest and Gallo jug wine (including a memorable night in February 1986).

While working at Garibaldi's in Columbia, and then later Motor Supply Co. Bistro I learned about "good wines" vs "house wines". I learned that it was cheaper to order a bottle of something good than to get five glasses of the house wine at a much larger price. I developed a fondness for french sauvignons and chardonnays but not for the heavily oaked and popular California chardonnays. I liked Poully Fume and Pouilly-fuisse and Fume blanc and pinot grigio and orvieto and dry white wines. But I LOVED red wine. Loved it loved it loved it. Our wine lists included some beautiful cabernets and pinots and zinfandels from the Russian River Valley, the Willamette Valley, the Alexander Valley, Vineyards that still invoke awe and longing (at $40 a bottle much too rich for my blood) include: Stag's Leap, Jordan, Pine Ridge, Silver Oak, Gundlach-Bundschu, Clos du Bois, Clos du Valle, Chateau St. Michelle.

I moved to Washington DC and started graduate school. One year, I got to go to San Francisco for a conference so I scheduled a trip to the wine country where I visited the famous Ravenswood Vinery (No Wimpy Wines!) in Sonoma County and I went to three other vineyards in a fit of happiness and feeling sophisticated. I returned with a poster of the iconic Ravenswood label and a desire to become a wine snob. I was dating an Austrian guy named Michael at the time. He was in the hotel business and worked at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington DC. He had studied wine, of course, as a hotel and restaurant graduate and was interested in the same things as I was - good food, nice hotels, great wine, and traveling. His brother ran a very lovely hotel outside of Vienna in the Burgenland - Austria's wine growing region.



One day his brother asked him to pick up a bottle of Opus One for him to bring back to Austria. I went with him to the MacArthur Boulevard Wine shop which had a good selection. I was shocked to see that the bottle cost about $125 dollars back in 1995. That was a fortune. One day, I thought, one day - I'll have a taste of that fabulous nectar. I'll be rich enough to buy a bottle myself. Michael kindly gave me the promotional poster/corkboard that came with it and it has decorated my kitchens from DC to Amsterdam to Bangkok.


So back to Bangkok, I arrived at my friend's house with my precious bottle of Kendall-Jackson cabernet sauvignon. Not too expensive, admittedly but when you are in the mood for a nice big California Cabernet, its easy to get and tasty. I had brought it back from the US and thought, well I'll bring it to the dinner party. It won't really go with the seafood but we can drink it afterwards.

Imagine my joy when our host pulled out a bottle of Opus One. "I received it as a gift from a Thai graphic designer," he said, "and I thought it would be good to drink it tonight." I was amazed and excited. After much discussion on how to get it to the right temperature (an issue in hot balmy Thailand), we got a glass each of the precious nectar. Oh the nose! and the beautiful dark ruby color...
According to the bottle, it contained "Aromas of black olive and minerals underlie more traditional notes of dark chocolate, cola and espresso. Showing flavors of ripe blueberry, cassis and licorice, this age-worthy wine simultaneously offers a smooth finish and a slight grip of tannin at the close." I have never mastered the art of describing the wine I am drinking in this fashion. I can sometimes get the aromas. Instead I'll just say that I was transported back to the dreams of my younger self. A place where I thought about how my life might turn out... a place of daydreams and hopes and ideals where a bottle of wine would represent "making it in life". 

As I swirled the wine and chatted with the diplomat to my left and the high-powered consultant to my right, enjoying freshly cooked chinese and thai cuisine and discussing United Nations reform and hiking in Bhutan, I breathed in the rich and complex aroma. The grapes had transformed themselves from simple fruit produced in California from the wine legends of Baron Phillipe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi into the stuff that career fantasies are made of. I felt like an adult. I felt like I was living the life I wanted for myself finally. And the wine was oh so very very sweet.