Memories

My two tickets for a flight on a World War II biplane between Volgograd and Uryupinsk. It landed in the middle of a field of flax seed, and today people joke about the idea that planes once landed there. There are no more flights to this area. The charge was 11 rubles each way, plus 30 kopeks commission.


My two tickets for a flight on a World War II biplane between Volgograd and Uryupinsk. It landed in the middle of a field of flax seed, and today people joke about the idea that planes once landed there. There are no more flights to this area. The charge was 11 rubles each way, plus 30 kopeks commission.

I was looking for some old photographs of my trip to the Soviet Union in 1977 and didn’t find them. I did, however, find a bunch of stuff, including receipts for flights and hotels.

I learned that I had stayed in a suite with a view of the Kremlin at the Hotel National, now owned by Marriott. My receipt indicated that I had paid 37 rubles for a night—the Intourist rate, much higher than what the locals would’ve paid.

Those Soviet rubles were not a convertible currency, and I cannot find the value of them at the time. 

What I did learn is that when the Soviet Union collapsed, that Soviet ruble was convertible to the new ruble—at the rate of 1000 to one. Yes. 1000 old rubles to one new ruble. It reminds me of the time I returned from Yugoslavia with one million dinar notes that weren’t worth converting.

So my night would have been worth about three kopeks or 3/100 of a modern ruble.

Today one ruble is worth a little more than one cent. So my night at one of the best hotels of Moscow cost me $.0003. I might be off by a zero, but I’m walking and writing, so I don’t want to stop and get my calculator. You get the picture.

And then there was the suite. Yes, I had a wonderful view of the Kremlin. But it was a real dump of a room that looked as if it hadn’t been upgraded since the 1917 Revolution. And of course there was a heavy older woman sitting in the hall checking my every move and holding onto my room key.

The 37 ruble charge for the extra night.

The 37 ruble charge for the extra night.

I’ve written many stories about that trip, but one of them has to do with the mistake of leaving my camera in the hotel room. The next time I tried to use it, it fell apart in my hands. 

In the 1970s, it was the first of the miniaturized Minox 35mm cameras. I was very proud of it. Having it fall apart in my hands was not cool. You can imagine, as I did in those days of Cold War paranoia, what must have happened.

When I returned to the U.S., I took it back to the store where I had bought it.

“I’ve never seen anything like this!” The shopkeeper kept turning it one way and another, trying to come to grips with it. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. I took it out of my hotel room, tried to take a picture, and it fell apart in my hands.”

“So you didn’t drop it?”

“No, I never dropped it.”

“Well, it certainly doesn’t look banged up. I don’t know what to say. But the camera is still under warrantee, so we will give you a new one.”

The charge for a night at the only hotel in Uryupinsk at the time. Because foreigners weren’t allowed, they only had one rate—1 ruble and 62 kopeks. Today the price at the same hotel has risen all the way to $16 a night. When my friend Artem stayed there recently, they had the same problem with power that I did 40 years ago.

The charge for a night at the only hotel in Uryupinsk at the time. Because foreigners weren’t allowed, they only had one rate—1 ruble and 62 kopeks. Today the price at the same hotel has risen all the way to $16 a night. When my friend Artem stayed there recently, they had the same problem with power that I did 40 years ago.

I accepted his offer without further explanations.

Another memory from the Hotel National was of going to the dining room and being seated, in a giant empty room, at the only table that held two other people. I could not convince them to give me my own table. I suppose it was too bourgeois a concept to even consider.

I neglected to mention to my tablemates that I spoke Russian, because they were deeply absorbed in a conversation and ignored me. Soon I was in the middle of the story of their illicit romance, and their first reunion in several years. It was quite fascinating. Their world obviously did not include any concepts of privacy.

But what I remember most about that conversation is when she brought up an old friend, and her companion said, “Oh didn’t you hear? She cut her hand, it got infected, and she died.” 

“Oh, I didn’t know that happened,” she replied, moving onto another subject, as if it were a completely natural occurrence—which I suppose it was, for them.

I’m sure you have guessed by now that I decided to stay at the Hotel National on my recent return trip to Russia. How could I resist? And yes, I did splurge for the Kremlin view suite.  

Needless to say it was considerably more expensive than the fraction of a penny I once paid.

The view I was hoping for!

The view I was hoping for!

An Epic Adventure

I’m going on an epic adventure soon.

Many of you will recall my trips to places like Bhutan, Bangladesh, Turkmenistan, and Myanmar, and wonder what I have come up with now.

Well, this one is epic for me, personally, not because of the geographic remoteness or political turmoil of the destination, but because it is part of a search for my ancestors.

I have done considerable research in the Balkans, and wrote a book about my mother’s side of the family: Mother Tongue. Part of this upcoming trip involves a return trip to the Balkans, as a mob of us–kids, grandkids, cousins, siblings– descends on Istria, now in Croatia. We will visit Medulin, the village where my mother was born. We might also visit the refugee camp where Alex and I spent our early childhoods. We will bask in the sun, eat truffles, and chatter in Croatian.

But the first part of my epic adventure will take me to my other homeland: Russia.

Last picture in refugee camp before my Aunt Galya and Uncle Shura—on the right—left for America in December of 1952. My Grandmother Daria is in the middle.

Last picture in refugee camp before my Aunt Galya and Uncle Shura—on the right—left for America in December of 1952. My Grandmother Daria is in the middle.

Next year is the one-hundredth anniversary of the day my father, his siblings, and their parents fled, as the Russian Revolution and Civil War wiped out most traces of their very existence. On November 13, 1920 my father’s family set sail from Crimea in search of new lives. I intend to publish a book to celebrate that centennial.

My grandfather was the only one of ten siblings to escape; we are the only Amochaevs outside of Russia. No one has ever known what happened to the descendants of Grandfather Ivan’s brothers and sisters. We lost all trace of them.

I am looking to find a connection. Those of you who know me understand that once I get on a mission, I pursue it with a relative amount of persistence. 

My brother, my Russian cousin’s family, and I will be traveling with a possible new relative with whom I connected recently for the first time, Artem. His family doesn’t speak English; fortunately, after 100 years, we American Amochaevs still speak Russian fairly fluently. The ages in our group will range from a quarter of a century to almost three-quarters of one. Together we’ll travel to the villages where my grandparents were born. We will travel through our old Don Cossack homeland to our parents’ evacuation point at Evpatoria in Crimea. I am carrying DNA kits with me in the hope of finding more potential family-member candidates.

My great-grandfather Minai, born before 1850, had 10 children. Only my Grandfather Ivan left. I am looking for the descendants of any of the others... So, second cousins one or more times removed...

My great-grandfather Minai, born before 1850, had 10 children. Only my Grandfather Ivan left. I am looking for the descendants of any of the others... So, second cousins one or more times removed...

Yesterday I read a book about a woman who learned through DNA testing that she didn’t know her biological father. She also learned about a cousin she didn’t know she had. A light flashed in the back of my brain. I set to work.

I drew up genealogical charts and family trees to figure out what percentage of a DNA match would be required to confirm a candidate. Because we are going back to people born 150 years ago, the percentage is small. I hope to find a DNA match of one-half of one percent or more. That would almost guarantee a third cousin, or a second cousin once or twice removed, e.g., a young person whose great-great-grandfather was my grandfather.

This morning I decided on a whim to look more carefully at the results of the DNA testing I had done a few years ago. I learned that Kat—my first cousin once removed—and I share almost half a percent of DNA with many people. I found on Facebook that one such young woman—with an uncommon Russian name—comes from Moscow and lives in Washington, DC. A possible match. The most amazing news, however, is that the girlfriend of Kolya, my only other first cousin once removed, is that young woman’s Facebook friend.

I am sharing this now, before I learn more about those thin threads of connection, because I want to share this mystery with all of you as I myself experience it.

Shared DNA by generation. Alex and I share 47.4%, Kat and I, 7.18%.

Shared DNA by generation. Alex and I share 47.4%, Kat and I, 7.18%.

 

World in a Name

Me between brother Sasha on left and cousin Mima in Belgrade, then Yugoslavia, in 1950, just before we left forever.

Me between brother Sasha on left and cousin Mima in Belgrade, then Yugoslavia, in 1950, just before we left forever.

I have just finished editing the translation of my book, Mother Tongue, into Serbian.

By the close of the last chapter I was sobbing.

Those last few pages made me dive deep into emotions that I now want to share, but find almost impossible to do in English. For the first time, I get—very, very deeply—what it means when you say that something is “impossible to translate.”

Throughout my book, I talk about the fact that I never had a name for the language I spoke with my mother. It was just called speaking po našemuor “our way.” It’s the reason that, absurd as it sounds, I never knew precisely which language my mother and I spoke, or why. 

When I traveled recently through the countries that once made up my homeland, I learned that the language I spoke with my Croatian mother was Serbian. Why didn’t we speak Croatian? At first I couldn’t say. Upon further reflection, I’ve come to believe that it was because Mama first learned to talk in Serbia. Although her parents were Croatian, the languages are not different enough for a child’s mind to differentiate between the two.

In my book, I write about some of the consequences of growing up multilingual. Mostly I recall funny anecdotes about my mother’s use of English. A whole chapter is dedicated to the word the, and ends with Mama calling my first boyfriend “the Greg.” If I had enough time, I could convince you that the article the is unnecessary; so unnecessary, in fact, that it doesn’t even exist in Serbian. That’s why Mama had so much trouble with it.

Now imagine translating a chapter about that word—the—into a language where it doesn’t exist. That was what I had to do while translating Mother Tongue into Serbian, and it was almost impossible to do in a way that preserved both the logic and humor of the original English. I am sure readers who do not speak English will shake their heads and move on.

This morning my translators sent me an unexpected email. It turns out that “Tania Amochaev” just doesn’t work in Serbian. I have to decide on an alternative—and there are many from which to choose.

Татјана Амочајев is on my Yugoslavian birth certificate, now presuming citizenship in any one of six (more or less) countries.

My green card.

My green card.

Tatiana Amočajev is how the official government English translator in Belgrade wrote it.

Tatiana Amocajev was issued a Green Card by the United States of America immigration services. 

Tatyana Amochaev was registered as a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Татьяна Амочаева graduated from the St. Cyril and Methodius Russian high school in San Francisco. 

Tania Amochaev, my wedding certificate confirms, married Harold Hahn and retained her given name.

Tania Romanov, or Tania Romanov Amochaev, is the author of my first book, Mother Tongue

And that brings me full circle.

Before my mother died, dementia made her forget her other languages. She spoke Serbian and assumed everyone should understand her. I’m reminded of a Serbian proverb she taught me: “govori po srpski da te ceo svijet razume”; or, “speak Serbian so that the whole world will understand you.”

I ended Mother Tongue by thanking my mother for teaching me the language that allowed me to tell her, po našemu—in our way—that I love her, wherever she might be. 

The hospital in Belgrade where I was born, in 2014.

The hospital in Belgrade where I was born, in 2014.

When the translators finished their work, they came up with the perfect name for my book. I don’t know if it will withstand critical scrutiny but, for me, it expresses everything: my relationship with my mother and the exclusivity of our language; my connection with the countries of my birth; my relationship with my mother tongue; challenges, adversity, and sentimentality; nurturing and love. My universe. 

Coming soon to a bookstore near someone:

Po Nashemu: A Saga of Lives Interrupted by Exile, by Tanja Romanov Amočaev.

 
Just a few came for lunch when we invited the family in Novi Sad, Serbia, in 2015.

Just a few came for lunch when we invited the family in Novi Sad, Serbia, in 2015.

Christmas in Bangladesh

Writing about Bangladesh was so concurrently confounding and exhilarating that I almost gave up. My experiences both arriving and departing the country offer insight into the contradictory emotions I felt.

I had been assured by many knowledgeable people that obtaining a visa on arrival was simple, normally taking about twenty minutes. Likewise, the trip from the airport to the hotel where my travel companions and I were staying was ordinarily about half an hour.

Processing our visas took almost three long hours, during much of which it felt as though we would be turned back. The authorities feared we might be election observers rather than tourists.

Cities were full of colorful rickshaws and more election posters than could be imagined.

Cities were full of colorful rickshaws and more election posters than could be imagined.

Once we finally had our visas, the half-hour trip to our hotel took twice that, as we drove through a busy and invigorated city. The streets were lit to an incredible colorful brightness in celebration of Bangladesh’s day of freedom from Pakistan—December 16, 1971.

Two weeks later—December 30—marked both the end of our trip and election day in the country. It took 11 minutes to drive back to the airport. In further contrast with what we experienced on arrival, now the city was devoid of both vehicles and humans. Almost all motorized transport was banned from the streets. Internet traffic was shut down. The police were out en masse. The government had carefully orchestrated its own reelection, and was now “protecting” the people from possible turmoil by the effectively silenced opposition.

There was no major turmoil. The prime minister had run unopposed and—unsurprisingly—won. Of 300 congressional seats, only three went to the opposition.

The election had all of the hallmarks of a totalitarian dictatorship. After much consideration, discussion, and debate, however, I would say the Bangladeshi people live in relative freedom under a government whose leadership they mostly support.

At the airport with three Air Force officers—a pilot, an aeronautical engineer, and an avionics engineer.

At the airport with three Air Force officers—a pilot, an aeronautical engineer, and an avionics engineer.

Near the end of my trip, a three-hour conversation with a man whose entire extended family supports the opposition helped shed light on the situation. According to him, the incumbents and the opposition vary little in their objectives, and the country is experiencing economic success that has almost eliminated its well-documented days of hunger and abject poverty.

Protection from Islamic extremism also plays a role here.

Between my arrival and departure I experienced a largely Muslim population living in a secular land—an environment almost unique in today’s world. I observed Christian, Hindu, Sufi, and Islamic places of worship. I learned of the titanic and tiresome battle between two female national leaders. I saw more election posters than my mind could handle, watched thousands march in areas so remote as to defy the possibility, and filmed an island of fishermen embark on a voting expedition. I posed for pictures with border police and riot police, and met three newly promoted female Air Force officers. I saw almost no other foreign tourists, and drew as many stares as a Martian might in my home country. 

A few weeks earlier, in India, I wanted to acquire a holy Hindu necklace made of basil-tree seeds. It was not until Christmas Day, in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, that I found a tiny shop that sold the necklaces. By then, I was no longer surprised at the apparent contradiction of finding my Hindu keepsake in a mostly Muslim land.

Manoj grabbed a picture of our Christmas Day love fest after this woman clasped the basil seed necklace around my neck.

Manoj grabbed a picture of our Christmas Day love fest after this woman clasped the basil seed necklace around my neck.

I am quite certain it was not the $.59 she earned from the sale that elicited the joy expressed by the shop owner. And mine could not have been caused by those tiny seeds. It was the glow of our shared exhilaration at connecting with someone at once so foreign and so alike. Our love for humanity broke all barriers between us.

It was a Christmas gift from Bangladesh that I will always cherish.

Call to Prayer

It was Friday morning, Winter Solstice, and way too early for the sun. 

A sonorous chanting of Buddhist monks floated across the lake and into my open window. As the echo of the chants was dying down, a Muslim call to prayer extended the musical performance—a curtain call in a medley of tolerance. Were it a Sunday, perhaps a nearby church would have joined in.

Islamic scholar in the midst of a busy market town. He called his wife and kids out to meet me.

Islamic scholar in the midst of a busy market town. He called his wife and kids out to meet me.

It’s not exactly what I envisioned as I thought about spending Christmas in Bangladesh.

“Christmas in Bangladesh...” my friend Gay said to me last night on the phone. “It would make a great title for a book.” 

Yes, I am spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Bangladesh. Not an obvious choice, I will admit, but one that works for me. Spending time in places I know little about is always enlightening and gratifying. I love breaking impressions created from great distances. 

My trip to India in the preceding weeks circled Bangladesh from all sides, including a visit to a shared border at remote Agartala. In a confusing geography, India surrounds Bangladesh for all but a strip of land in the southeast that abuts Myanmar. Imagine Pennsylvania torn away by a distant king to become a foreign country, with Orthodox Christianity as its dominant religion, completely surrounded by the United States except for a tiny strip that connects it to Canada. Then imagine a long border open at random points with militia goose-stepping in elaborate uniforms to close the crossings every night. 

In your mental image, add an upcoming election in which Pennsylvania will decide whether to cozy up to the United States, as its current government is happy to do; or shift toward Russia, which is tempting given the two countries’ shared Orthodox religion.

You might now be coming close to understanding the confusion that surrounds the upcoming election on December 30. Add in a totalitarian streak in the government—not unlike what our president would enjoy seeing in ours—and you get closer still.

Wonderful Sufi mystic who led me up to the temple even after the management committee said it was not allowed. They finally relented.

Wonderful Sufi mystic who led me up to the temple even after the management committee said it was not allowed. They finally relented.

But Bangladesh, which tore away from Pakistan in December of 1971, declared itself a secular state and acknowledges alternative beliefs. My travel companions and I have visited Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic places of worship, as well as a Sufi temple.

Attending the border-closing ceremony on the Indian side started the shift in my awareness. Soldiers and barricades made it all look forbidding and impassable. Yet gradually, step by step, we were allowed closer to the actual border gate. Armed soldiers stood at the ready to make sure we didn’t step too far.

We got close enough to see another group of soldiers across the border. Their camouflage uniforms were distinguishable only by a slight difference in color—while the Indians and Bangladeshi both wore khaki and tan, the latter added a pale burgundy to the weave.

The formality and distance reminded me of a similar experience on the border between India and Pakistan. But there the similarity ended.

Indian border soldier in flag lowering ceremony.

Indian border soldier in flag lowering ceremony.

As the minutes ticked by and the sun dropped lower, the gap between the countries slowly shrank. First, one of our group was allowed a photograph close to the actual barrier. Then another one of our friends crept into the gap between the countries. The Bangladeshi soldiers approached, their curiosity aroused by our white faces.

As we smiled and took selfies of soliders on both sides of the border, our guide expressed concern that we not favor either group too strongly. We took pictures of both until darkness had fallen. Then we left, aglow with camaraderie.

My trip picked back up on the other side of the border, in Bangladesh. Here I feel comfortable wandering around greeting people. Perhaps it’s needless to say, but since our arrival we have seen no Americans, no white faces since we left Dhaka, the capital.

I look forward to the increasing fervor surrounding the election.

Selfie with Bangladeshi border soldier.

Selfie with Bangladeshi border soldier.

My Ganesha

I left the boat in the dark, walking on land untouched by human feet.

It was 5:00 AM. The large sandbank we spent the night on was reclaimed from a river that had dropped many feet below monsoon level. No humans wandered here. There was virtually no life. It was just me and the sand, the boat generator growling in the background.

Walking on water…

The light was hazy; mostly all I saw was sand and sky and water. As dawn started breaking, vague contours became distant hills.

I roamed, searching for an image to take as a keepsake of this morning. Praying for a holy man to emerge from the mist didn’t do the trick, but it did bring back the memory of a man on the Ganges who appeared to walk on water. That image had memorialized the moment. Now I prayed for something to memorialize this morning.

I started seeing shapes in the sand. I found myself appreciating the beauty in every one of them. They became beautiful on my screen.

Until I realized I had just memorialized a bird dropping. Was I that desperate for beauty? Was there beauty in everything?

A transcendent picture of shit?

I was walking in a trance, meditating on God’s gifts, when I almost stepped on Her. Shocked, all I could do was stare.

Self-portrait of Ganesha

Ganesha lay before me in the wet sand. Fearing she was a creation of my mind, I hastened to abduct her image—sheltering her in my Cloud—and quietly walked away. 

On the ship, showing the blessed gift to my friends, I couldn’t articulate my experience.

“Who drew that?”

“The Goddess.”

“Oh, yeah, sure . . .”

It didn’t go over well. 

I went out for more wandering. But Ganesha would not let me go. 

I had to go back to her.

I recalled a tiny nut imbedded in her image. I decided the nut must have been the artist, pushed around by the wind. Now I wanted that nut. 

Trying to find a tiny pattern in a vast expanse of sand was even harder than I could have imagined. I gave up twice. But when I realized I still had a few minutes before the boat left, I dashed back out for one more search. 

My old footprints finally led me to the spot. I scooped up the nut and sped towards the boat. 

Home of the Goddess

Gently brushing away the sand, I watched as the nut turned into a beautiful little clamshell.

And then I understood: my Goddess had crawled into the clamshell, danced around to draw her self-portrait, then drawn me to her through the morning mist. 

I don’t know where my Goddess floated off to afterward, but I’m bringing her clamshell home with me. She can rest in it whenever she needs to.

Sunset on the boat

Angels and Demons

Saviors and monsters. Angels and devils. Good and evil. Life. 

“But how did Lenin turn into a monster?”

Our writing group was critiquing my book about my family’s exile from Russia a hundred years ago. Trying to mix personal story with world history is a challenge; but this question had nothing to do with my writing.

I had tried to paint Lenin as neutrally as I could, as a man who started out with the goal of creating a worker’s paradise. Just a few pages later he had launched the Red Terror, which eventually evolved into Stalin’s genocidal rule.  Whatever their initial objectives might have been, they had replaced the Tsar with a far greater evil. 

“You know, he’s not the only example of a leader bringing salvation in the form of Communism who instead brought damnation on his country,” someone said.

My mind immediately returned to Cambodia, where I had recently traveled. Someone else brought up China. The debate disintegrated into disagreements over Cuba. It was hard to bring the discussion back to my writing.

A few days later a New York Times headline announced: Khmer Rouge’s Slaughter in Cambodia Is Ruled a Genocide. It continued: “Pol Pot and his Communist disciples turned the country into a deadly laboratory for agrarian totalitarianism.”

Russia judged Stalin just a few years after his death. Cambodia waited forty years to succumb to external pressure to judge Pol Pot’s supporters.

A photograph headlined the story:

Photographs of victims of the Khmer Rouge at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Photographs of victims of the Khmer Rouge at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Just days earlier I had been hosted by the prison’s official photographer at his home in Siem Reap. I met his mother, wife, and child. I documented and photographed our time together. 

Nhem En and his work

Nhem En and his work

Nhem En was an enigma. He was completely flat in his affect, and his eyes revealed nothing. He made his living from the world’s morbid curiosity about his past.

As I listened to him talk, all I could think about was that my father, too, took pictures of people with an uncertain future. But his were photos of those waiting to go to Canada or Venezuela or America. Nhem En’s were of people facing certain death.

My father never talked about his years in a refugee camp, years of an uncertain future. Nhem En hasn’t stopped talking about it for twenty years. A few years ago the Guardian wrote: “And the photographer is far from a sympathetic advocate: before starting his career as a self-published author, he tried to sell Pol Pot’s sandals and toilet seat online.”

Cambodia continues to haunt me. My graduation from college, in 1970, was canceled because the University at Berkeley rose up in protest in response to the U.S. invasion. My father was deprived of seeing the result of years of hard work; he was dead by the time my graduation was ceremonially held in 1990.

Cambodia is still recovering. In the declaration of genocide, the tribunal found only three living people guilty. All others have been exonerated of any influence in the decisions taken by the leadership. Lucky for them, since many—including the current prime minister—were Khmer Rouge members.

One of the guilty was called Dhuc. He ran the notorious prison and was Nhem En’s boss. Nhem En explained that he testified against Dhuc. And then he dropped what was, for me at least, another bombshell: he had photographed Pol Pot with a Yugoslav leader. 

In 1950 Pol Pot had spent a month building a highway project in Yugoslavia. During his rule, Cambodia considered Yugoslavia one of its few friends in the world.

“Wait,” I wanted to say. “Leave me out of this!”

I was an infant in Yugoslavia in 1950. I did not need to learn that my mother’s country supported this horrific dictator. I had already lived through watching my homeland endure one war crime tribunal. Did it help to reassure myself that it was the totalitarian leader of Yugoslavia who exiled my family?

In any case, I was in Siem Reap to take a photography workshop, not to rip my soul. People came here to see the ancient temples of Angkor, not to revisit their past.

A few days later, walking out of the gate from the temple of Angkor Thom, I stopped to photograph some faces on the bridge. They represented a story of Guardian Gods and Demon Gods facing off to roil the waters of the Earth.

A thousand years later, it seems the gods are still at war. And my personal demons are also still at battle. Once you start turning the pages of your past, I have learned, you can’t control what comes out.

Back to the Future

Street food from home...

Street food from home...

Returning to Vietnam after almost fifteen years feels like jumping off the diving board into the deep end of a pool.

At first, I was shocked at all the changes. Then, as I slowly drifted through, I felt the link between the past and the present. In the vibrance of the old city, they are truly merging.

One phenomenon is overwhelming throughout the country.

At the beginning of this millennium most people in Vietnam rode bicycles. In addition, there were around four million motorbikes. Today virtually every adult in the country owns a motorbike—there are over five million of them in the city of Hanoi alone.

As I walked the streets of Hanoi, trying to bring back old memories, instead I kept thinking about the contrast between two cities.

Easy to tell the tourists…

Easy to tell the tourists…

It would be fun to see a graph comparing the number of bicycles in Hanoi and San Francisco over time. I am quite confident that today there are far more bicycles in San Francisco. And it is not, as it is in Hanoi, the poor people who are on two wheels. It is ironic that while at home we try to reduce the number of carbon-emitting vehicles, their growth in developing countries is explosive. 

The conical hat and the bicycle laden with goods are slowly joining the cyclos—the traditional three-wheeled taxis—as purely tourist attractions. Fortunately, street-food stands and house-front markets of all sorts persist in the old town. They are, however, getting squeezed out by chic coffee shops and boutique hotels.

It’s funny that people think San Francisco has changed incredibly over the last 15 years. You only need to go to Vietnam to realize that, in comparison, our pace of change at home is that of a snail crawling next to a leaping grasshopper.

Luckily there’s still a bike repair guy on every corner.

Luckily there’s still a bike repair guy on every corner.

Nirvana in a Cup

Distractions while on the hunt…

Distractions while on the hunt…

“You have to try egg coffee in Hanoi. It’s delicious.”

I looked up the best place to go, and found Café Giang near my hotel. I wasn’t a bloodhound on the trail, I confess; but I walked down the street and checked for the café where the address indicated. However, when I asked for number 39, one person pointed left, another pointed right. I got distracted by a group of men smoking a pipe made from a three-foot piece of bamboo. And then by women steering bicycles full of fruits and vegetables and endless commodities.

I never saw the café.

The next morning I decided to order an egg coffee at my hotel. I was staying at the Metropole, Hanoi’s most famous hotel and one of its most sophisticated. Its guests have included Graham Greene, Charlie Chaplin, and my personal favorite, Joan Baez. Surely they could handle an egg coffee.

The beautifully dressed young waitress was replaced by a gracious gentleman. He bowed and told me that, if I would wait six to eight minutes, he could bring me an egg coffee. When I asked if it took that long to make, he explained that he would have to find the place that makes them somewhere “in the garden.”

Ten minutes later I was sipping my drink. The presentation was sublime. A delicately framed candle burned in a translucent porcelain base, which supported a larger square bowl half-full of hot water. The coffee cup rested in the water. Every effort was made to keep it at the perfect temperature.

“How is it?” The waiter attentively asked.

“It is very nice.” I graciously replied. Graciousness is my tactic when enthusiasm is lacking. The coffee tasted like the Three In One instant coffee I make in my room when traveling in Asia: cloyingly sweet hot liquid with the underlying taste of caffeine.

“You know,” the man said, reading me perfectly, “I can tell you where to get a real egg coffee.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, it is not far.”

He walked to the front of the restaurant, grabbed a small notepad and pen, and wrote down: Giang Cafe, 39 Nguyen Huu Huan. My friend, Catherine, had also recommended this spot, so it had to be.

This time I persevered. Fifteen minutes after I left the hotel, I scoured the side of the street where my map application sent me. Usually trustworthy, this time the app was way off. I crossed the road, walked up and down the other side of the block, and kept asking for number 39. Finally, someone spoke English and directed me almost next door, to a very narrow slot and then a stairway going up. I snapped a shot for future reference.

A group of Myanmar nuns I had been observing along the way followed me into the café. At tables that came to my knee, we sat down on chairs the height of a hiking boot.

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After placing my order, I talked and laughed with the nuns, who were very happy to meet someone who knew their country. Hugs were soon being exchanged, and the nuns’ joy expressed through requests for photographs. Of me.

The café was reminiscent of a beatnik coffee shop in a rundown section of a large city. Mold competed with the paint on the walls. The furniture was something McDonalds should copy to get you out as quickly as possible. It would contort the average American into intolerable pain.

The egg coffee came in a simple cup with the café’s logo. It rested in a small bowl of warm water. It looked like a small latte with a murky design. When stirred, the froth was dense. The liquid below was black.

And then, a moment later, I was transported into my very earliest childhood. I closed my eyes and took one more tiny sip of the coffee.

Senses that hadn’t been tantalized in decades burst to life. I reached out and sent a text to my brother. The tiny chair I now sat on matched the one my baby butt had cuddled as I waited impatiently for my mother to finish what she was doing. Holding a bowl in her hand, she beat its contents so hard, she threatened to destroy the bowl itself.

Gogglj-mogglj— the j making the ending baby-soft—was our name for these beaten egg yolks with sugar, gentled down to a creamy thickness by my mother’s perfect touch. A tiny spoonful of it would roll through your mouth and line your throat with nirvana. 

Egg coffee was apparently invented in Vietnam during hard times when milk was hard to come by. My Mama’s treat had been made in a refugee camp where a similar scarcity of ingredients prevailed.

I did a search on Google. It turned out that something called Kogel Mogel was created out of scarcity in Eastern Europe and is still eaten by children in Poland today. I’ve never asked my relatives in Serbia or Croatia about it, but I certainly will. 

Hanoi and I have both moved far beyond our era of scarcity, but I have rediscovered a love affair with the token of gold that shined its light into my soul. 

His father is the little baby.

His father is the little baby.

As I was leaving, I met the young man whose grandfather started the café. He pointed to his father, the baby in a portrait of the family. I will always remember Hanoi egg coffee as something his grandfather created for his father to keep him happy in hard times.

Sri Lanka Seaside

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I sit watching the dawn rise over the ocean—always a different ocean—whose molecules perhaps touched my far younger self as I fished with my father. I sit here now, in peace, and contemplate the patterns left in the sand, the rocks in the water, the sound of waves. It takes but an instant to gain a freeing calm, a soothing generous gift from the earth.

I never had this sense of peace as a child. If I calmed down for one minute, a rock would push its way into my consciousness. A rock that needed to be dug up, retrieved, explored for urchins, thrown into the water; a source of chaos that my father eventually had to quell.

Today’s version of his daughter understands his need for those calm hours at the water. Comprehends that the long pole he carried was his guardian against interruption. That the fish we ate were merely an excuse, although a welcome one, for his pre-dawn slipping away from  responsibilities, for his hours spent alone. For his departure, for a while at least, from struggles: for his dive into peace.

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And finally I think about the morning, while I was high in the Himalayas of northern India, that he rose for the final time in those predawn moments. A short time later he could’ve been at a beach like this one, whose water lapped his favorite city, his home, his San Francisco. He could have been hooking cornmeal balls carefully crafted the night before to tease the fish. 

Maybe he, or his spirit, did all those things. Maybe he is still doing them. Maybe it is him that I watch in the distance, hanging on to the pole that reaches over waves that lap the beaches of Sri Lanka. Maybe it is he who is watching over me, teaching me to enjoy life in a new way.

I can’t know for certain, because on that morning, while I slept in a tent beneath a 20,000 foot peak in the Himalayas, my father slipped quickly away.

I see a fisherman in the distance, and, as so often when I am again in the time zone of the land I explored as he, too, started exploring something new, my mind turns to Papa with an inevitability that is both familiar and soothing.

 
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