People Who Pull the Magic Out of You

I knew when I met you an adventure was going to happen. –Winnie-the-Pooh

The important relationships in my life are best explained by this quote: Stick with people who pull the magic out of you and not the madness. These are the people who fill in my gaps with their strengths. They have characteristics I love and want to absorb when we are together. They are the ones with whom I am always comfortable.

I have written about my overseas friend, Janmarie, in an earlier story, Hellenic Halloumi. We saw each other almost every day for the three years we overlapped while living in Nicosia, Cyprus. She came to my kitchen table on weekday mornings for coffee and conversation after dropping off her children at the International School.

In 1993, our family moved from Cyprus and the daily connection was left behind. It was before email and international phone calls were common so we lost touch with the changes in each other’s lives. In 2018, our last year living overseas, Janmarie was in Beirut, Lebanon while I was in Paris. She urged me to visit her before we left Europe. I didn’t hesitate to say “yes”.

Friends are the family you choose.Jess C. Scott

In an overseas lifestyle, distant from home-country and relatives, new relationships are built to take their place. Friendships tend to be intense and become surrogate family on holidays, vacations, and for celebrations.

My mother visited us the first Christmas we lived in Taiwan. We had just arrived a few months earlier. She was surprised by the closeness of friendships we had already established in a short period of time. She said that we were at a depth of relationship and caring about people we had known for only months that could take years to develop at home.

Having lived in Singapore and Cyprus before, we knew that filling in the details of our home away from home started with the people who came into our lives by chance…and shared geography.

Janmarie met me at the airport in Beirut. We slipped into easy conversation on the way to her apartment as if it had been 25 minutes instead of 25 years. She told me how important it was to her that I made the effort to come to her home, how much it honored her, and our friendship.

A true friend is one you can go extended periods without seeing or talking to, yet the moment you are back in touch it’s like no time has passed at all.Ellie Wade

Janmarie’s plan was to immerse me in the beauty and culture of Lebanon. Generosity and freshly prepared food are hallmarks of Lebanese hospitality.  After we arrived at her apartment, the dining room table was laid with an array of dishes made in preparation of my visit.

Because I had watched Janmarie feed her family in Cyprus, I knew the importance and love that goes into making nourishing and delicious food followed by sitting  à la table en famille in Lebanese/American households. An abundant table with my friend’s vivacious spirit was the perfect beginning.

at janmarie’s table

Janmarie introduced me to Marti, an American of Lebanese heritage who grew up in Kansas and now lives upstairs. She is a scholar and an intellectual, studying the Quran with a private teacher, working her way through reading and reciting all of the holy prayers in Arabic. Marti became a new friend because of an old friend. We connected right away.

The three of us took a day trip outside Beirut to the beautiful Shouf Mountains and the picturesque village of Deir el-Qamar [Monastery of the Moon], which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Along the way we stopped for coffee and a typical pastry snack, ka’ak [Arabic for cake]. It was savory rather than sweet–a ring shaped bread “purse” filled with cheese and covered in sesame seeds. At lunchtime we dined al fresco, under trees overhanging a restaurant patio, with freshly prepared traditional hot and cold dishes to share.

My favorite cultural experience was the “Hubbly Bubbly” ritual. This is a tall water pipe that sits on the floor and is used for vaporizing flavored tobacco. It is available in every bar, restaurant or café. Janmarie chose a mint/lemon flavor for me. Not a smoker by habit, but there was enjoyment in relaxing with friends and making big puffs of smoke from an aromatic hookah in the midst of others doing the same. When in Lebanon, do as…

hubbly bubbly time

We spoke about the Cyprus years when our children were young and life had a different framework. But we shifted seamlessly to exchanging stories of experiences, perspectives and beliefs that define who we are today. It’s an important quality for ongoing friendships–each person capable of keeping the relationship moving forward, while savoring shared times from the past.

The day before I left, I asked Janmarie to cook one of my favorite Lebanese dishes, Mujadarah. She taught me to make it years ago when my forte was preparing only one-dish meals for my family. Mujadarah is a lentil/rice casserole smothered in fried onions. I probably served it alone because it is flavorful and filling. The version she made for me was finished with a lemon-y dressed cabbage salad over the top. I finally learned to make a complete one dish meal, salad included!

pounding garlic to make dressing

There are reasons, perhaps subconscious, as to why we want to return to certain friendships. And why others remain at a distance. There are people in our lives where any amount of time spent with them is just right, and exactly what we need. We swoop into their orbit because they pull out our better selves, even our best selves. And when a friend knows the joy in your company that you feel in theirs…then the magic is complete.

…And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit. –Kahlil Gibran, “On Friendship”


raw ingredients for mujadarah
ingredients for cabbage salad

MUJADARAH WITH CABBAGE SALAD-Serves 4 

  • 1 C. dry lentils
  • ¾ C. dry rice
  • Cook the lentils and rice separately. [Leftover rice works great.] Mix cooked ingredients together in a decorative bowl. Season to taste with salt and olive oil.
  • Cut two onions into thin slices. Deep fry onions in oil until crispy and brown. [You can also use less oil and sauté onions very slowly until caramelized.]
  • Smother the top of the lentil/rice combo with cooked onions.  
cabbage salad

Cabbage salad:

  • 2 C. finely sliced cabbage
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced [or probably more]
  • ¼ C. olive oil
  • ¼ C. freshly squeezed lemon juice [or more]. Can use vinegar, but lemon is so right for this
  • ½ t. salt
  • Pomegranate seeds [not optional as they add color and zing.]
  • Optional: 2 T fresh or 1 T. dried mint, also green onions

The Dressing:

  • Pound garlic and salt in mortar and pestle.
  • Add lemon juice [or vinegar] and olive oil.
  • Whisk together and pour over cabbage. 
  • Toss. Refrigerate 1 hour or so to blend flavors.
  • Adjust seasonings.

To Serve:

Place Mujadarah on a plate. Top with cabbage salad. Salad must be crunchy because the cabbage rules!Janmarie

dinner with candles and wine at home

Million Mile Stories

I have flown a million miles over the past 31 years. As the miles accumulated so did stories of airports and airplanes. One of them, now part of family lore, involved a plane departing with my  child but without me. 

There are two other unforgettable stories about one airport in particular, the old Hong Kong Kai Tak International. It closed 20 years ago, in 1998, after serving the city for 73 years. In the late 1980s we used it for three years to fly from the U.S. to our home overseas in Singapore. It was a 24 hour trip from Denver, Colorado with layovers in California and Hong Kong before landing at Singapore’s Changi Airport.

One decade and two international moves later, a chance encounter with a contemporary oil painting transported me back to the first, spectacular, pulse-racing landing we made into Hong Kong.

In 1999, an overseas friend, who is a Brazilian artist, held a gallery showing of her oil paintings in Taipei, Taiwan. Strolling the array of artwork, I saw the title “Rooftops” next to a large canvas. Looking from the title to the painting, something shivered through me. Art is supposed to create emotions like this. When I looked again, I had a visceral flashback to 1987, the summer we left Colorado and moved to southeast Asia. Now, I wanted to own that painting.

In the years since Taiwan, “Rooftops” has hung in our home in the “altstadt” in Oberursel, Germany, later above an elaborately carved marble fireplace in Paris, and now in the living room of an apartment in Princeton, New Jersey.

Neither of our two children understand why I love this painting. One summer, our son Adam stayed in Taipei to work while the rest of the family was on home leave. He disliked it so much that he removed it from the wall and stashed it out of sight until August.

Adam was only 5, 6, and 7 years old during those early years overseas. He doesn’t remember what made this particular piece of art “real” for me. Or why I keep dragging it around the world to hang in a place of prominence in our homes.

Hong Kong’s Kai Tak International was a city airport in the midst of densely populated Kowloon. There were mountains and hills and multi-story apartment buildings surrounding it. The runway protruded into the sea. Reclaimed land kept extending its’ length as airplanes grew bigger. 

kai tak runway into kowloon bay

But there was something even more remarkable about it than just longevity. Pilots of all airlines regarded it as one of the most difficult airports in the world to land a jet smoothly and safely. Because Kai Tak was renowned for its’ challenging, hair-raising approach to the runway. For a spectator on the ground witnessing jumbo airliners land was eye-popping entertainment. As a passenger in a window seat–it took my breath away.

45 degree turn to runway
landing approach into kai tak
skimming rooftops part of a normal day

One commercial pilot with 30+ years of experience remembers, “As a pilot, it was totally unique. It was the only major airport in the world that required a 45-degree turn below 500 feet to line up with the runway, literally flying between the high-rise buildings, passing close to the famous orange and white checkerboard as you made that final turn toward the runway.”

making the turn with checkerboard marker
night time view of landing pattern

With two sleeping children who were oblivious, I watched with my forehead pressed against the window while the pilot executed that sharply arced turn to align with the runway. As the engines decelerated, the fuselage and wings seemed to barely skim the flat tops of square-shaped apartment buildings–block after block after block of them. In slow and slower motion, I looked down onto rooftops, laundry flapping on clotheslines, children playing, and Chinese faces with features easily distinguishable, turned upward. It was a bird’s eye view teeming with life. 

Landing at Kai Tak was tricky partly because of a prominent hill blocking what would normally be a straight-on approach to the runway. Another daunting reason for a truly “white knuckle” landing was inclement weather.

A Cathay Pacific pilot reflects, “This [landing on runway 13] was quite a challenge, especially in strong wind conditions. As Cathay pilots, we had plenty of practice and became very adept at flying the approach…but it was quite a challenge for pilots from other airlines, especially in the more demanding flying conditions, as they might only come into Kai Tak once a year.”

Wind was one very big problem. Rain and low ceiling cloud cover were another. Because of the unique approach over the city,  it was important for pilots to have a good view of the runway in order to avoid overshooting the turn on the approach.

A retired pilot recalls watching unsuccessful landings from the ground. “Being at the Kai Tak car park watching airplanes land in heavy rain could be very worrying. The pilots could not see the runway, and landing over Kowloon, you had to be visual with the runway. Some [pilots] seemed to wait a little longer than others before they aborted the landing and went around for another go. Some would appear out of the low clouds on the approach path, then power up and vanish back into the clouds.

Another year I was traveling alone back to Singapore via Hong Kong.  The descent began in extremely foul weather. There was rock and roll turbulence, heavy rain, and no visibility as we neared the airport. Everyone strapped in, no rooftop views, just a wish and a prayer to be on solid ground. The plane angled and tipped drastically with a big “bump”. Suddenly, the engines powered into high acceleration as the nose pulled upward sharply. We were pinned back in our seats, gripping armrests. The cabin was silent. No explanation from the flight deck. We swung around for another try. 

circling for another try

Vivid memories tie me to that now defunct airport of crazy turns, aborted landings, and inhabited rooftops appearing like colorful concrete terraced gardens in the sky.

rooftops like gardens in the sky

And that is why a painting always hangs on a wall of our home depicting blocky, geometrically aligned squares and rectangles in colors of red, blue, yellow, green, and mustard brown.

“rooftops”, painted by heloiza montuori, 1999

The other story, mentioned as family lore, has tried to remain buried at the bottom of mothering mistakes. But it is the one our son most definitely remembers. In today’s world of air travel the same series of circumstances would never happen again. It was bad enough 30 years ago.

Our first home leave trip was not until 1989, the second summer away from the U.S. I made the trip alone with the children, husband coming later. Four-year old daughter did not sleep for the interminable hours from Singapore to Hong Kong to California to Arizona where we had one final flight before meeting grandparents in Iowa.

She passed out in deep slumber as we landed at the Phoenix airport. There was no plane change, simply a one-hour layover to pick up additional passengers and a new crew. I asked the flight attendant if I could leave soundly sleeping child to run into terminal and make a phone call about our very delayed arrival to Des Moines.

Taking seven-year-old son, we disembarked and found the pay phones. Twenty minutes later we were back at the gate.

The jet-way door was locked. The plane was no longer there.  A new crew had boarded quickly and, because the flight was well behind schedule, a decision was made to depart right away. I went into panic mode, pleading that my child was asleep in the back of the plane. IT COULD NOT POSSIBLY HAVE LEFT! The flight attendant who had [minutes before] agreed to my brief leave-taking “forgot” to mention sleeping child. The gate agent told me it was too late, the plane was in the sky.

In actuality, the plane taxied to the departure runway, was cleared for take off and began acceleration. As a new crew member prepared to take her jump seat, she discovered a small girl in the back of the plane with no adult nearby. A hasty call to the flight deck and jet engines were powered down seconds before lift off. The plane returned to the gate.

I did not look at the faces of the other passengers as I re-boarded, holding tightly to the hand of the child with me. I knew they were appalled at the situation and angry about the further delay.

In the long walk to the back of the plane, I focused only on the shining face of my now awake child, eyes blinking and small blond head bobbling back and forth above the seat, calmly wondering what was going on.

Two stories–one of a plane swooping low over flat rooftops teeming with life, the other of a plane that left the gate…early.  A painting reminds me of one. A heart-stopping memory will not let me forget the other.

Both are reminders that life unfolds as a collection of stories–some of them expand the world we know, as when we see or do something extraordinary, and others remind us there is a world of unexpected, too.

Somewhere in between is where we live.

Home Is Where You Are, Even Overseas

A new experience can be extremely pleasurable, or extremely irritating, or somewhere in between, and you never know until you try it out. Lemony Snicket, The Blank Book

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artist rendition of singapore, 1980s

There are myriad ways to experiment with life. Moving away from the known or familiar is one way to keep things interesting. Finding enriching friendships is another.

In the late 1980’s, a new job opportunity nudged our family geographically away from the comfort zone in middle class America. Our two children were young and adaptable. As the decision-making adults we took a chance–letting go of two jobs, two cars, a house in the ‘burbs of Denver, Colorado. Just for a couple of years. We moved to Southeast Asia.

From the beginning, everything we saw, smelled, ate, drank, or experienced in those first years in Singapore laid the foundation for what followed over the next three decades. We moved to four other countries. Singapore was the catalyst to keep experimenting.

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Singapore when we moved there, 1987
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shopping, late 1980s

My husband remembers pacing the aisles of the airplane as we flew there for the first time, children sleeping peacefully, worrying about what he had wrought on our family. How would we adapt a very American lifestyle to this small, tropical, island-state with three predominant cultures–Chinese, Malay, and Indian?

Actually, it was easier than we imagined. Because of the people we met, the friends we made–living a little off balance and learning to experiment became the new norm. The first important overseas experience happened after I met Jan.

Jan was an operating room nurse–we had that in common–who left her job to follow a husband to work in Germany and then Singapore. We both missed the camaraderie of our co-workers and the hospital environment. Here we were, in a foreign country, unable to work professionally. It was time to find something else to do.

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still a lot of bicycles in 1987, singapore

There was a refugee camp located in a former British barracks on Hawkins Road in the Sembawang area of Singapore. It was established after the fall of Saigon in 1975 for Vietnamese “Boat People”. Because Singapore did not accept refugees, this camp was a transit stop before deportation to countries accepting them. Volunteer nurses were needed. Jan signed us up.

We took long bus rides to the north of the island to work in the clinic. Giving immunizations, tending injuries, dressing wounds, treating minor illnesses in men, women and children who usually spoke no English, but knew how to smile in gratitude. A steady influx of refugees created long lines of those needing help. I jumped feet first into learning the risks that other people take, too.

Friendship with Sandy provided something different. She was also an American nurse who moved to Singapore with a husband and three children several years before we did. It didn’t take long for her to start a business by filling suitcases with wholesale women’s clothing made in Hong Kong and selling them out of her home. Clothing in Singapore in the ‘80s was available only in small Asian sizes and styles. Non-Asian women were an eager and ready market for her niche.

Sandy’s home was a cozy, eclectic mix of styles and textures that I loved. When I asked where she found certain pieces of furniture or funky artifacts, she said, “We should go Kampong shopping.”

The word “Kampong” is from the Malay language, meaning village. Throughout Singapore’s early history, and well into the 20thcentury, kampongs were settlements of houses and small shops where the indigenous population lived. Initially, huts were built with palm-thatched roofs designed to let the air pass through and temper the heat of tropical sun. Later, wood and zinc replaced thatch, which seemed exotic but actually leaked horribly in monsoon rains and housed centipedes and other creepy crawlies that dropped down from overhead.

The kampong communities were close-knit, doors left open, children of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian culture played together seamlessly. Rainwater was collected. Cats, dogs and chickens roamed in co-existence. Later, generators that sometimes worked brought electricity.

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map of known singapore kampong locations

Colonial British government began addressing overcrowding and poor hygienic conditions within the kampongs in the early 1900s. Public housing began in earnest after WWII as the Singaporean population rapidly increased.

In 1960 (prior to independence in 1965), the Housing Development Board [HDB] was established to further urban renewal. Mass demolition of shop houses and kampongs began to build affordable, low cost, high-rise, housing estates for all Singaporeans. HDB flats led to the creation of “new towns” throughout the island.

Transition from kampong living to government sanctioned housing flats allowed people to easily enjoy clean water, electricity and gas. However, life changed dramatically in the sense of decreased community spirit, less neighbor interaction, and a population of children who grew up playing on concrete, not in nature.

By the time we moved to Singapore many kampongs had been partially bulldozed or completely razed as residents moved on to modern living. Tropical heat, humidity, and prolific vegetation growth from daily rains rapidly invaded and took over abandoned sites.

Sandy knew locations of deserted kampongs where, if you dared to venture into the overgrowth of tenacious weeds and jungle vines, dodge snakes and crawling things, repel dengue-fever-bearing mosquitoes, you could unearth left behind possessions with potential for renewal and use.

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Picture 8
Picture 9
in the jungle, 1988-’89

It was the Singapore equivalent of an archeological dig, with a recycling component. Here we witnessed the life of a community after the community had moved on.

Kampong shopping was always a dirty, sweaty proposition of hunting, excavation and fun. Rewards were in the discovery. We found crocks used for storing water, oil or food, incense burners, altar tables, tea pots, baskets, dragon pots, glass jars, marble lamp bases, teak tables, a wooden kitchen cabinet with rusted screens. We hauled our “treasures” home and spent hours cleaning or refinishing them. They functioned as decorative or usable artifacts, with a back-story.

Then there was my Singaporean friend, Mary, who lived in the apartment building next to ours.  She was a tiny woman who loved food–as culturally important to her as Chinese matrilineal family hierarchy. Mary would call me on the phone and say, “I’m picking you up to go eat!” The food in Singapore was, and is, phenomenal. This is the country where my taste buds learned to crave anything spicy. Mary was my guide.

We ventured all over to her favorite “Hawker Centres”–informal, open-air food stalls specializing in Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, or Indian food. Cooked on order, on site, eaten with chopsticks while sitting on plastic stools at plastic tables on the sidewalk.

I tasted Nonya Laksa [Laksa Lemak] for the first time at Peranakan Place on Orchard Road–a spicy noodle soup in curried coconut broth with prawns and a quail egg. Carrot cake [Chai tow kway] is not cake and not carrots, but a favorite hawker dish of mine. Steamed white radish and rice flour cut into cubes and fried with garlic, eggs, preserved radish and other spices. Whatever Mary ordered I ate, sweated through, and loved.

Singapore was the beginning of making friends who lived as we did, away from the usual, outside the familiar. People who say “yes” to living outside of the box.

I thrived in our international moves because of every friend I made. Sometimes it was hard to leave one place to rebuild relationships in the next. But the easy part was sustaining those friendships because of everything we experienced together.

Creating relationships and life lessons is really what overseas living is about. In such a nomadic lifestyle, the key is making a home where you embrace friends as family. Anywhere in the world.


A REASON, A SEASON OR A LIFETIME

When someone is in your life for a REASON, it is usually to meet a need you have expressed. They have come to assist you through a difficulty, to provide you with guidance and support, to aid you physically, emotionally, or spiritually. They are there for the reason you need them to be. Then, without any wrongdoing on your part, this person will say or do something to bring the relationship to an end. Sometimes, they die. Sometimes, they walk away. What we must realize is that our need has been met, our desire fulfilled; their work is done. The prayer you sent has been answered. Now it is time to move on.

 Then people come into your life for a SEASON, because it is your turn to share, grow, or learn. These people bring you peace or make you laugh. They may teach you something you have never done. They give you an unbelievable amount of joy. It is real, but only for a passing season.

 LIFETIME relationships teach you lifetime lessons, things you must build upon in order to have a solid emotional foundation. Your job is to accept the lesson, love the person, and put what you have learned to use in all other relationships and areas of your life.author unknown

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sandy’s teak kampong table

Sunshine on the Back of Your Knees

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photo by patricia green-sotos in ubud, bali

It’s summer.

For some, this might involve a long trip across many time zones. Perhaps even to geography halfway around the world.

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Yellow Flower Cafe at sunset, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Because of our overseas lifestyle, I have been flying internationally at least twice a year for the past 30 years. In the beginning, I ignored the concept of jet lag and simply acclimated with a lot of sleeping. It was easy to fall asleep on planes. When the engines revved up and white noise began, I closed the window shade and REM sleep took over. After reaching destination, I slept some more. Eventually, day and night realigned.

Numerous tips have been written about preventing or overcoming jet lag. Some are helpful.

Suggestions such as a good night’s sleep before a long flight, over-hydrating by consuming more water than you want, and refraining from too much alcohol or caffeine. Other tips include not flying with a hangover [major hydration no-no] and immediately adopting the day/night schedule of your destination geography.

These days jet engines don’t automatically make me pass out, so I think about waking/sleeping hours on a plane differently. I diligently perform ankle circles and spinal twists in my seat. I get up to walk or stand. I drink many glasses of water. I take brief naps rather than sleep for hours at a time. All are decent behaviors for trying to align my body clock. But they never accomplish the whole thing.

Recently, I made a long flight from Paris to Singapore and Bali and back to Europe two weeks later. Sixteen hours of flight time each way with six hours of time difference.

The friend who travelled with me to a yoga retreat in Bali had two jet lag ideas that were completely new. The first came from a limited study done in 1998. It was quirky enough I wanted to believe its’ conclusion–exposing the back of your knees to light, particularly sunlight, in the first days after travel, alleviates jet lag.

An instant antidote! And perfectly timed as we had two recovery days in a hotel in Denpasar before the retreat began. Our base of operation was established immediately after breakfast in poolside lounge chairs. When knees overheated [front or back], we obligingly cooled them by sliding into the water. If boredom or cloud cover made it silly to continue this “therapy”, we went exploring.

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retreat location, ubud, bali, by patricia green-sotos
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our room
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rice field from our porch

The other new jet lag treatment was more medically aligned with the body’s circadian rhythms. It was the result of a hormone study by my friend’s physician brother on human cortisol fluctuation.

I emailed him after the trip to ask more about it. Dr. John replied, “Jet lag is hormone dislocation.” Translation: The body’s normal clock gets out of whack when you pass through multiple time zones.

“Your cortisol level surges each day at awakening. It is set to your biological clock and changes only reluctantly–about one hour per day per time zone. Hence the lag.”

At the opposite end of the day, when it’s time to go to bed, the brain produces melatonin and off to sleep we go. Cortisol levels rise again with the sun. The cycle continues.

Big time zone changes mixed with fluctuating biorhythms can play out dramatically in young children. Our son was six-years-old the first time we flew home to the U.S. after moving to Singapore. During an early dinner, we watched his head suddenly sag forward and plop down in the center of his plate. Sound asleep in mashed potatoes.

Dr. John suggests: “The fix [to jet lag] is in replacing the hormone [cortisol] at the right time of day. Hydrocortisone is safe and effective when you take it at 7:00AM local time for just three days. You can’t do it everyday, only with international travel. Combine that with melatonin [3-10mg] to help get you to sleep and you get the benefit both ways. Works like a charm.”

Take 20mg Hydrocortisone for three days only, at 7 AM local time, for international travel.

You need a medical prescription for oral cortisone and it may be challenging to find a physician willing to write one for jet lag, even in such a limited dose. You could try encouraging your physician with what Dr. John says: “Simple replacement dose is not the same as a treatment dose of prednisone which overpowers your own cortisol. It’s safe and effective.”

I have yet to use cortisone therapy for jet lag. Instead, I researched that back-of-the-knees-light-study from the ‘90s. It was debunked, not long afterward, as nonsense.

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After returning from Bali I took 45 minutes each afternoon for a week to lie on the floor by my dining room window and expose the back of my knees to sunlight. When I really wanted a jet lagging nap, I found that sunny-knee-time seemed to warm up my brain and nourish it, too. I was more alert, avoided the nap, and slept through the night.

Fact or fiction, back-of-the-knee sun exposure worked for me.

Regardless of this or that tip for recalibrating your body clock, you can just live out jet lag and do nothing. Eventually, day and night cycles return to “normal” wherever you are.

However, try to avoid falling asleep at the dinner table. Or try to finish your meal first so as not to wake up in a pool of gravy.

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double tree pose
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ohm in flowers
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rice field yogi trees

Mussel Memory

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Hotel de Ville on the Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

Brussels is an important city for several reasons. Politically, it is the capital of Belgium and the European Union. Historically, it’s importance as a fortress town began in the 10th century. Architecturally, the Grand Place central square is designated a World Heritage Site of striking 17th century design and construction.

For me, the importance of Brussels is tied to memories of food I ate there while visiting a friend years ago. Now that we lived next door to Belgium, in France, it was time to revisit. We took a road trip from Paris.

In 2002, when I was living in Taiwan, my friend Nancy invited me to Brussels. She had moved there from Taipei several years before. The guest room was on the top floor of their multi-level row house. The ceiling angled sharply from the peaked roof. An over-sized skylight opened to fresh air and rooftop views. Wooden floorboards were painted white. On the bed was a puffy duvet of green and white gingham. The adjoining bathroom housed a big, white bathtub and thick towels warmed on a radiator.

I called it the Heidi-hayloft-room because it reminded me of the children’s book about the little Swiss girl who slept in a hayloft. I had flown from Asia into a fairytale.

A four-year-old boy who believed he was Batman lived in the household. It was impossible to separate costume and character from the child. So his parents lived with a masked, black-caped superhero. At pre-school, Brady acquired a perfect French accent. And, like everyone else in Brussels, he loved pommes frites.

Frites are a national snack food in Belgium. Locals and tourists eat them like popcorn at the movies. Storefronts sell paper cones filled with them. A range of sauces is offered to go on top. Each order is freshly made and just right–crispy on the outside, feathery on the inside. I believe Belgians perfected frites because they know that eating them outside on a freezing day warms you on the inside. We shared a cornet on bitingly cold February days. And stayed warm to our bones.

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side by side friteries
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sauce choices
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cornet with a dollop of spicy samourai sauce

While Nancy and I walked around the Grand Place during my visit, she said, “You must eat this. Right now.” I was handed a waffle wrapped in crisp paper from a street vendor’s cart. On the outside it looked like any waffle, except it was thicker through the middle and more irregular around the edge.

Then I bit into a surprise. Partially melted, caramelized sugar crystals crunched and then dissolved into syrup. My mouth filled with warm sweetness. Time, place, and taste blended into one moment. A winter morning on a cobblestoned square with gothic spires and a hot waffle. I never forgot it.

My food-writing mentor, M.F.K. Fisher, had a similar experience. As a young woman living in France, in the 1920s, she hiked with an Alpine club. Most of the members were much older. She was the only foreigner. On a very cold day, while catching her breath at the top of a steep hill, an old general said, “Here! Try some of this young lady!” He gave her a pale brown piece of chocolate.

In my mouth the chocolate broke at first like gravel into many separate, disagreeable bits. I began to wonder if I could swallow them. Then they grew soft and melted voluptuously into a warm stream down my throat.” m.f.k. fisher

Another hiker said, “Wait, wait! Never eat chocolate without bread, young lady!”

And in two minutes my mouth was full of fresh bread and melting chocolate, and as we sat gingerly, the three of us, on the frozen hill, looking down into the valley…we peered shyly and silently at each other and smiled and chewed at one of the most satisfying things I have ever eaten…m.f.k. fisher

MFK’s hillside bread and chocolate. My perfect waffle. Fisher calls them “peaks of gastronomic emotion”. Still, moments like these are personal and hard to describe.

In 2015, waffle vendors were no longer allowed in the Grand Place. Off the square, many shops sold waffles loaded with extras. It wasn’t what I wanted.

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waffles plus
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waffles loaded

On a side street, I spotted a parked truck painted with “Gaufres Chaudes”. A man was making waffles in his van. What he handed me was smaller and not as dense as I remembered. On the inside there was a thin layer of molten sweetness but no crunch of sugar crystals turning into syrup. The taste was fine. I was hungry. It was cold. But it wasn’t the same.

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The best food revisit turned out to be mussels. “Moules-frites” because they always come with fries. Nancy had introduced me to Aux Armes de Bruxelles. My husband and I found the restaurant and ate there three times over three days. There was no reason to go elsewhere. It’s that special. Belgians get their mussel fix there too.

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the best modules-frites in brussels

September to April is the season for jumbo mussels from Zeeland, a southwestern province in the Netherlands. It is the only region from where to obtain this particular type of mussel. So our server said. Other mussels, and those eaten throughout the year, are not the same. Smaller. Different. Not as tasty.

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They were served in a big bowl, frites on the side, and always bread to sop up the sauce and veggies at the bottom. It was trial and error to choose a favorite sauce. My husband found his on the first try–white wine and cream sauce [au vin blanc et crème]. I asked for a made-up combination that became my favorite–white wine, lots of garlic and red pepper [au vin blanc, beaucoup d’ail, et piment]. It’s not on the menu but the kitchen obliged.

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The broth is full of chopped onion, celery, fresh parsley, and once, tiny asparagus tips. It is an intoxicating combination–a bowl of jumbo Zeeland mussels, steamed heat and aroma from the sauce wafting up, crisp fries on the side. We smiled and sipped wine between morsels of mussel and bites of frites.

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two ways to eat: using shell as utensil
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or fork

The best accompanying beverage required more trial and error. Belgian beer was good for the beer drinker. A glass of Bordeaux was good for the red wine lover. But the unanimous favorite was sharing a bottle of Chablis from Burgundy. Begin sipping while you wait for the moules-frites to arrive.

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Mussel memory in Brussels will always be one of my food highlights. Sharing the adventure with a loved one means we both understand what a “Fisher moment” of gastronomic perfection smells, tastes, and feels like.

“...Everything is right. Nothing jars. There is a kind of harmony, with every sensation and emotion melted into one chord of well-being.” –mfk fisher

Fisher describes it better than anyone. Mussels in Brussels. C’est très bon.