어떻게: How

I have to admit, I’d rather be posting about my trip to the DMZ. I’ve got pages and pages of stories left from my summer and fall adventures, but somehow, it just doesn’t seem right to keep blithely moving on to happy travel posts without at least acknowledging what just happened. I’m not a political blogger, but those who read here know sometimes I share my thoughts on a major world event, and/or event that causes me deep emotional reactions. If you just want the happy travel stories, that’s ok. I like those better anyway. But, for what it’s worth, my .02 on the election.


I’m 16 hours ahead of the West Coast. The election was well underway when I woke up Wednesday morning. By lunchtime, the Koreans were staring at the electoral map on my phone, just saying 어떻게 (ottoke) over and over. It means “how”. By the time I left work, it was over and I was in shock. My Canadian and I ate pb&j sandwiches and drank 2 bottles of wine while trying to talk about literally anything else.

I didn’t sleep well. Anxiety and stress combined with some lingering back pain. I woke up tired and numb. Random thoughts keep scrolling across my brain like one of those LED tickers in New York. Tears coming and going as I walk down the street to the bus station. No appetite at all. Even when I’m finally hungry, I can only eat a few bites before it all seems disgusting again. I cried, I yelled, my coworkers laughed because they thought it was a joke until I gave example after example and then they cried too. I spent the whole day fighting the urge to just lay down on the floor and stop moving. My body is in grief.

어떻게 (ottoke)

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I was (am?) one of those disenfranchised white people who is sad-mad about the loss of my future. I believed in the meritocracy and it failed me. I’ve changed careers 3 times because every time I invested in the training and the low level experience building, it was just in time to have the economy hiccup and destroy my future. In America, I couldn’t get adequate health care because it was too expensive. I put myself in insane debt for a career that I will never have now. I couldn’t afford to live on my own with a full time (30-50% higher than minimum wage) job. Even with a roommate, I couldn’t save up for a car, a house, a new TV or even dream of getting out from under the credit card debt without the aid of my family. I took a job I didn’t like with no prospect of advancement simply because I needed the health benefits more than I needed a job with a future. I drove the one new car I bought way back when the economy was still good until it died a sad death from lack of me being able to afford regular maintenance 16 years later. One of the reasons I never married or tried to have children because the very thought of even more financial burden terrified me to my core.

What makes me different from the rest of the disenfranchised white people who believe Trump can save them? I am honestly not sure. It could be my educational level. It could be my hippie mom. It could be my urban location. It could be … nothing.

You can make jokes and snide remarks about racism, but we all know that only a small portion of the Trump base are really off the hook haters. Most of them are the lost people, who like me, thought that if they worked hard, they could get that house with the fence and the kids and the dog and it would be ok. We are all processing what it means to realize that just isn’t true.

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My cousin – my mixed race, female cousin told me she would have voted for Trump if she’d voted. (Do not even get me started on that “if”) When I expressed my worry for her and her family members of color, she was surprised and said she had no clue how I got the idea he was racist. Even when I tried to explain, she dismissed it as having happened so long ago (the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, and you know the recent election cycle) that it wasn’t relevant anymore. When I asked her to tell me some things she liked about Trump, all she could tell me were the same things I’ve read and seen over and over. Hillary is BAD, the establishment is BAD. Trump is not those bad things. Yeah, but what do you like about him. He’s not the establishment.

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She was just as politely patronizing to me as I’ve seen well meaning liberals be, too (and if I’m being brutally honest, as I’m sure I’ve been to people when I feel like they are being dumb but I still want to try and be nice). I was hoping my liberal media “bubble” was exaggerating that “voting-against” response. That if I just talked to a reasonable Trump supporter they could explain the good things to me, but nope. It looks like the people who don’t love Trump are so in hate with Hillary and “the establishment” that they don’t care who else gets hurt, including themselves.

I can’t tell you how much I want to be wrong. I want to be Chicken Little and not Cassandra. So. Much.

어떻게 (ottoke)

obama-protestAnd there’s the riots, which I am not happy to see. I don’t want violence to be an answer ever. Yeah, I know, the Trump supporters did it first, but now that they’ve won, they’d like it all to stop. People are like “oh you’re overreacting”, “oh you’re whiny cry babies” (nevermind that’s been pointed at us for caring about anything ever for decades, so it’s lost it’s oompf as an insult), but I voted in 2000 when this happened with Gore and I was not scared for my nation’s future (although, it turns out I should have been). I was mad when Kerry lost in 2004, too because that explitive promised to do recounts and bailed. And the Democrats didn’t take to the streets in protests and riots because voters who lost an election were capable of telling the difference between a guy we didn’t like the policies of, and a guy who we honestly believe will enable the ruination, incarceration, and deaths of humans we care for and respect.

It’s not about oh we lost, boo hoo. It’s not about, oh we didn’t get our way and now we’re throwing a tantrum (looking at you House Republicans). It’s about all these horrible stories on twitter of people being harassed, threatened, and assaulted in the name of the President-elect. It’s about high school students being groped and bullied and beaten while their classmates chant “white power”. It’s about spray-painting the President-elect’s name on cars and churches then setting them on fire, sometimes with people still inside.

They say they’ve never rioted when their candidate lost (a debatable claim at best), but I say we’ve never abused people in the name of our winning candidate. This isn’t like any other election.

어떻게 (ottoke)

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Oh, yeah, I’m not going back. It’s not as big a political stance as it sounds. I left when the country was improving. I left before marriage equality. I left, not because I was disgusted or afraid, but because I like to travel. I’ve stayed away for the very practical reason that I get paid better for work I find more rewarding in cultures that have superior access to quality health care and in communities of like-minded globe trotters. It’s better for me out here than it is at “home”. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of going back before. What would I do? How would I pay rent? How would I afford health care? This is just a sort of nail in the decision. I don’t want to live in a country where I’m struggling to just get by when I can live somewhere that I thrive. I desperately want America to be that kind of a place again, but I’m not optimistic for the near future.

Not everyone can leave. Not everyone would actually have a better life outside America. Not everyone even wants to leave. That part’s just about my life choices.

어떻게 (ottoke)

Democratic National Convention: Day One

Bunch of folks are looking for the love. We know hate is bad, we know love conquers hate. I personally don’t like hating because of how it makes me feel. But I’ve also seen a lot of people in the at-risk minority groups get righteously upset at those “love uber alles” type messages. They worry, and I think justly so, that we who remain un-impacted or less impacted by virtue of our skin tone, our gender, our economic status, or our geographic region can take the moral high ground and love without suffering, thus forgetting the pain, fear, anger, loss and very real danger being experienced by people not us. But, I think it’s ok to love while still being hurt, angry, sad, mad, and scared.  I don’t think you have to choose.

I’m trying not to hate. I saw the Daily Show the other day, the it comes with the package speech Hassan Minhaj gave, and it so succinctly put into words why I’m upset with the not-actually-horribly-racist Trump supporters.

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Maybe right now, I feel the same way about them. I don’t actually hate you, non-racist, non-misogynist, non-xenophobic, Hillary-hating, establishment-destroying Trump supporters… I just don’t care about you? Doesn’t really feel good.

I’m trying to find all my compassion and use it, but I’m tired, wrung out, this year has seen so much tragedy in the US and I am afraid it is only going to get worse. And yeah, I’m mad at the people who voted for this. But I’m trying to be like… family mad. Mom mad. That kind of mad where you’re like, “I can’t believe you just took the family car for a joyride and crashed it into a telephone pole!” HUG “I’m so glad you’re ok, I love you.” because those go together. We can be mad at people we love and we can love people we’re mad at.

I’m not sure I have it in me to love the super bigots yet. I may not be that enlightened. But I know that’s not most of the people I’m mad at.

So they’ve shown it’s possible to not-hate someone, but at the same time not care if they live or die. I’m saying possible to be mad at people for doing dumb, dangerous, shortsighted, selfish things and still . That’s the struggle for me right now. That and trying to decide what to do with my book collection if I’m really never going back there.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to lay down on the floor and stop moving.

어떻게 (ottoke)

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#UltimateCoOp – A Seattle Gamer-Geek Wedding

As some of you know by now, I have returned to my US stomping grounds in the Emerald City. While I have been away, I wrote many stories about new experiences with new people and now I’m going to try a little experiment and write a story about something familiar using the same perspective I had while travelling. After all, there’s no reason not to keep having adventures just because the surroundings are familiar.

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” — Terry Pratchett


I came back to Seattle just in time to attend the much anticipated wedding of a couple of friends of mine who rank among the geekiest gamers I know.  Over time, through accident or design, they have come to talk about their lives in video game terms and so their engagement was announced as “Achievement Unlocked: Engaged”. The groom designed a video game using the wedding party as the characters, and a local comic book artist designed some beautiful comic art versions of the bride and groom for the website and invitations. The wedding theme was “gamer geek”, so I knew we were all in for a fun and non-traditional time.

I picked out a simple outfit using some clothes I’d picked up in Japan and tried to create a bit of an “anime” look with hair and make-up to blend in with the theme and to highlight my recent adventures. I felt a little bad because I hadn’t had time to gift shop at the registry places, but I’d promised the bride a “traditional Japanese wedding present” and she seemed happy with that idea. Mind you, this was before I researched Japanese wedding traditions. As it turns out, the most common gift is money in a very elaborate envelope. What can I say? I’m broke. My friends now have a very elaborate envelope.

First Impressions

I arrived at the wedding hall about 15 minutes before the ceremony was scheduled to begin and got to see the basic outlay. There was a wine bar on the patio, which is fairly standard at American weddings, but the divergences started as soon as I walked in the door. In the foyer, the traditional “guest book” had been replaced with cards (each bearing the comic art bride and groom characters with the names and date of the wedding). Instead of signing a book, guests were asked to write a message (or draw a picture) on a card using the colored markers provided and place them in a treasure box.

For snacks, a candy bar had been set up. No, I don’t mean a square bar shaped candy, I mean a bar (like snack bar or pub) with many full bowls of candy. Guests were invited to fill a bag with their favorite sweets to snack on or take home. Offering guests wedding favors is an American tradition, often small bags or boxes of candy (butter mints and jordan almonds are very popular), sometimes small bottles of bubble solution, and even on occasion a decorative trinket. This couple had opted to use the candy bar to let guests make their own candy bags, and had some beautiful copper keys (with a secret bottle-opener feature) as wedding favors, each adorned with a brown paper tag bearing a loving quote.

Off to one side of the entrance was an old fashioned arcade game set up with the groom’s homemade wedding video game that allowed guests to play a joystick/button-mash adventure that pitted 8-bit bridesmaids and groomsmen against one another with highly customized (read “inside joke) attacks like spilling a drink or flinging a crowbar. And on the other side stood a giant red telephone box replete with a Mario Question Mark cube dangling tantalizingly in the air.

As we were ushered to our seats in the main hall, each guest was equipped with a walkthrough and strategy guide to the day’s events (aka, a program). Written in the style of a video game walkthrough and complete with FAQs, the program gave us some tantalizing glimpses of the night to come, including the eventual appearance of Seattle’s premiere steampunk band, Abney Park.

Looking around me, I saw that the theme had been well and truly taken to heart by the guests who were dressed in an astonishing array of geek finery from
Star Trek uniforms to renaissance garb. Corsets abounded along with crazy hats, gear adorned ties, aviator goggles and foam weapons. The bridal party were possibly the most in harmony with traditional wedding garb, wearing suits and ties for the men, and simple black dresses for the ladies. The geek shone through in the adorable corsages that included a miniature blue spiky shell (from Mario Kart) and a rune adorned mini-dagger.

The Ceremony

The ceremony began traditionally enough (although the officiant had pink hair and a serious steam-punk vibe), but quickly took on the couple’s own unique flair. They began with a ring warming, trustingly passing their wedding rings around the seated guests to be “warmed” with handling and good wishes. Reading special passages is very common at American weddings, although for many this would include an excerpt from the Bible or classic literature about the nature of love or marriage, this couple took instead from their own favorite fantasy writers: Madeline L’Engle and Patrick Ruthfuss.

Side note: The argument about how much marriage should or should not be religious or secular is quite hot in the US in recent years, however Seattle is one of the most liberal cities around and has been embracing all kinds of life-partnership for a long time. Perhaps as a result of the overwhelming liberalness of the area, weddings here are often more about the individuals’ personal values than about a traditional “church” affair. Nonetheless, it was really cool to see how this couple took those church traditions, dug out the meaning behind them that they liked best and then created a new way to share that meaning.

Another new take on an old tradition involved the blending of two into one, and the set-up for the 1 year anniversary. For the for representation of two lives becoming one, many couples choose to use two candles that light a central single candle, and for first anniversaries, a chunk of the wedding cake kept in the back of the freezer is common. My friends decided to integrate their love of Mexican tequila into these traditions instead. Having solidified their love on annual trips to Mexico which included lots of tequila tours, they each chose their own blanco to pour into an aging cask so that it could mature into añejo by the one year anniversary when they will open the cask and enjoy (much tastier than frozen wedding cake!).

Even the exchange of rings had a gamer twist, for when the officiant prepared to hand over the rings, she looked at the couple seriously and warned them, “It’s dangerous to go alone… Take this.” And of course the ceremony ended with a final traditional kiss along with the Achievement Unlocked: Married.

The Wedding Quest

As we filed out to the patio for cocktail hour, members of the wedding party passed out another pamphlet containing the Wedding Quest. The Quest was a great ice-breaker activity set that got people mingling and playing with the various games and props that had been scattered around the building. Not only did a guest have to perform the task (such as play the wedding brawler video game, or take a selfie with the bride), but they had to get someone to witness the achievement and sign off on the checklist. Some quests involved signing the guest book or using the photo booth to help create more memories for the couple, while others involved dancing with strangers or feeding the bride’s mom.

The photo booth was a fun way to make wedding memories for everyone. In keeping with the video arcade theme, they had set up a computer and printer inside a box that looked like an arcade game. Guests were encouraged to choose from a range of silly props and costume pieces just outside the photo room. Then with a single press of a big red button, the machine captured 4 silly photos against a Mario background and printed your souvenir card with the wedding comic art and date. Below is Abney Park and some of the bridal party having a good time with the photo booth between sets.

The Quest kept me happily busy until the wedding hall had completed it’s transformation sequence into a dining hall, where we all convened for dinner and toasting. I took some advantage of my status as welcome home guest to finagle some of the bridal party’s special vodka and generally enjoyed seeing people I hadn’t seen for the last year along with meeting the new people that had come into our community during my absence.

Toasting, Caking & Dancing

The toasting began with a bottle of champagne that the bride’s parents had set aside at their own wedding, not realizing that unlike still wine, champagne does not improve with age after purchase. I really hope the photographer was standing by to capture the looks on their faces.  I think the aging tequila cask will be a much more successful investment.

Once safer drinks were provided, the toasts resumed with funny stories and clever antics. The bride’s brothers even presented her with a lovely sword to defend her own honor with. Although many of the audience felt that the new sword would be a great cake-cutter, it turned out that the couple had installed a dagger as part of their cake topper for that precise purpose. In addition to the dolls matching the comic book character themes there were several layers of geekery including the Portal cube, a dragon with a hoard of gold, a D20, some Mario Bros., a small library of gaming books and a solid foundation of Pac Man. And, for extra humor, the cake was a lie. It turned out that only one layer was cake for the couple to cut and share for the traditional cake-face-smash, er I mean feeding, and all the other layers were cleverly disguised styrofoam with fondant frosting decorations. Guests were served cake from a hidden resource somewhere in the back (which is just as well because fondant is nowhere near as tasty as butter-creme).

The traditional first dance of a newly married couple is often a sweet and romantic song like Eta James or Frank Sinatra. Sometimes a couple will take dancing lessons or plan some “fancy” moves like twirls and dips to look good on their special day. My friends took this to expert level, as it were, and chose for their first song Code Monkey by Jonathan Coulton. In addition to dancing their way through the chorus, they took turns being the code monkey in the story and acting out the lyrics. It was pretty much as insanely cute as it sounds. Parental dances were then followed up with a honeymoon fundraising “dollar dance” that allowed any guest an exclusive dance with the bride or groom for a financial contribution to the getaway fund.

After I took my turn dancing with the groom, I stepped aside to the bar and while chatting with another guest about our Wedding Quest achievements, I related that I had yet to achieve “Dance With Someone You Don’t Know”. At which point, the bartender swiftly emerged from behind the bar to treat me to a quick jig and witness my achievement. I think the catering staff were just as amused by the wedding as we were. It’s always fun when my group gets to attend events with staff, since so many of us have worked those grinding jobs before, we’re all extra nice and friendly to them, and it’s awesome to see their reactions when they realize they’re being treated like people instead of robot servants.

Finally, I stepped outside to get some fresh (cool) air, but my respite did not last long before a bride led conga line snaked into the courtyard to scoop everyone up and down the stairs into the hidden speakeasy. The basement room was decked out with a small stage and dance floor and plenty of comfy lounging couches around the walls plus another bar off to one side. Giant tubs of popcorn provided anyone still hungry with more snacking options and the slices of wedding cake kept appearing as if by catering ninjas. I proceeded to have a lovely time being flung around the dance floor by two very good friends who take dance lessons in swing, blues and salsa. My hairdo did not survive the experience, but I can’t say I was upset.

Abney Park

I’m really not sure what kind of shenanigans, bribes or blood sacrifices were made to accomplish this, but Seattle’s one and only Post-Apocalyptic Steampunk band played at this wedding. These guys aren’t just a local gimmick band, they’ve traveled internationally and enjoyed sold out shows. Apparently they also have a series of genre books about the airship captain and his crew. I however live in a cultural hole in the ground when it comes to music, so until that night I only had a brief and passing awareness of the group based on posters I had seen advertising concerts around town.

As you can see from the picture, they have a violinist among their musicians which is always a good way to win me over. The music is fun and bouncy without being painfully loud, another plus. And it seems to be largely story based type lyrics that are reflective of the characters and world they are portraying. They are also really mellow, fun folks. The venue was pretty small, so the stage was really just a step up from the dance floor and there was no green room or backstage area for them to go so they had to mingle with the guests. Perhaps because most of the guests were also in costume, or perhaps because of the bottles of wine that found their way from the bar to the stage (open bar is music to any musicians ears), they were highly complimentary of our vibe, totally seemed surprised at how happy everyone was, and quickly settled into enjoying themselves too.

Light it Up & Let it Go

At one point in the performance, I stepped away to help create the send-off decorations. Some people throw rice at a departing couple, and I’ve seen doves and butterflies released as well. Apparently the families had wanted to release floating fire lanterns, but the long dry summer had left a normally damp Seattle too dry. In fact, most of the state of Washington had been on fire only a few weeks before. So instead they got a couple hundred tiny battery operated lights and white balloons. This meant a hardcore team of volunteers spent a while assembling the final product, a non-fire starting floating glowing thing to release to the skies.

After we filled all the balloons, there were a couple dozen lights leftover, so I decided these should become fashion accessories for as many people as I could get them to.  This made for some new fun as we all tried to figure out the best places to add lights to our costumes. Several groomsmen wound up with back-lit ties, and an equal number of bridesmaids had glowing cleavage. I handed several around to the band while they were on break. They seemed to get a kick out of it, and wore the lights in hair, clothes and goggles for the second half of their show.

As the dancing went on, it became apparent that the bride and bridal party’s lack of sleep and early start to the day were taking a toll. Among the hundred or so regular size balloons were three giant ones that the couple used to lead everyone back upstairs and out the gates into the street. Once each remaining guest was armed with a glowing balloon, we huddled together and counted down to release. It was quite lovely to watch the glowing pearly balloons float off into the cloudy black sky. When the last balloon had drifted from sight, the couple looked around for their car and had a fun surprise. At some point the groomsmen had decorated the couple’s car with cling wrap and shoe polish as well as about a dozen more glowing balloons. However, since gamer geeks are notorious utility knife carriers, the plastic was swiftly dispatched and the couple drove off into the night, exhausted but happy, all quests completed and all achievements unlocked at the Ultimate Co-Op Wedding.


Special thanks to all the photographers I’m using here. I forgot to point and shoot for most of the event, so I’m relying on other guests phone photo skills to provide the fun imagery. I managed to personally achieve all quests in the Wedding Game before leaving (bragging rights) and had a great time reconnecting with my Seattle family. I love you all to pieces. Megan & Brendan, thank you so much for letting me be a small part of your special day, I know you’ll work hard to take care of each other and be happy and I look forward to more games and stories with you in years to come.

Five Days in France: Pt. 1 – Metz & Reims

My original summer plans had actually involved finishing the school year in Tabuk and then spending two months wandering Europe before returning to the US. All of this turns out not to be true anymore. As much as I loved my students and appreciated the experience of Saudi, I didn’t even realize how unhealthy I had become. I lost physical tone because there was no place to excersice easily, my lunchtime yoga routine had died when the school slashed our lunch breaks, and my mood (ok depression) made it nearly impossible for me to get up the energy to do any exercise at home. I also became mentally unhealthy, depressed and moody, unable to deal with stressors properly and not at all balanced. Being out for just a week made me feel happier and more balanced. So in addition to the extra stress that happened in my last week in Saudi (like the fact that all the teachers got heat exhaustion and had to go to the nurse or hospital), the restoration of my neurotransmitter levels in these last few weeks has really affirmed my choice to leave early.

Between my new job in Japan and the cancellation of my backpacking buddy, I decided to cut my summer break short and will be heading back to work on June 8th. With only three weeks of holiday and feeling a strong need to get people back in my life, I decided my break would be less about seeing Europe and more about seeing friends. My friend in Prague was happy to have me, but had another guest for a few days so I went to meet up with another friend, Miss Vixen Valentine, who was travelling in France to do some research for her Master’s thesis and to do a performance in Paris. So it was that one day into my holiday, I embarked on a road trip across Germany.

I rented a little mini car for pretty cheap and I had GPS on my phone, so after a light breakfast in my hotel, I hit the open road. Germany is really beautiful to drive through. It’s GREEN. I missed green so much. I think I had actually forgotten there were so many shades of green. I made up poetry in my head about the color green as I drove. And I think I also formed a new appreciation for the canola fields that broke up the green rolling hills with swaths of bright sunny yellow. The farm fields would end abruptly in forests as the vallys turned upward then open back up to farmland in the next valley. The gas stations were also really neat. There were these huge rest areas with gas stations, restaurants, bathrooms, and nature areas. The bathrooms cost .70 Euro, but you got a voucher for .50 that you could use at the next stop or toward your purchase in the shop. The coffee machines actually had whole beans and would and brew your coffee fresh when you pushed the button. There were full delis with actual food and not just gas station junk. It was really nice. I tried to follow one of the brown signs to see a cool site, but I never did find it. I didn’t mind the detour however, since I got to see a tiny little town with windy roads and cool buildings before getting back onto the main highway.

The drivers were really polite and took the whole concept of a passing lane very seriously. I had a couple mishaps early on where I didn’t get out of someone’s way fast enough, but I soon figured it out and then really enjoyed the driving experience.   As I got closer to France, the crops changed from  canola to grapes. The only indication that I had left Germany was a tiny blue sign that said France and the language on the road signs changed. It felt just like driving across states in the US, only I think states make a bigger deal about letting you know you are leaving or entering.

Metz, Lorraine Region

After a long but leisurely drive, I finally arrived in Metz. To be honest, I wouldn’t have even noticed this town, let alone spent two days there if I was travelling just to sight see. My friend however had gone to see the river Moselle because it is her family name, and so I found myslf across from the Cathedral of St. Etienne in a tiny little studio apartment overlooking the Moselle river.

Part of me just wants to tell you how terrible this place is, oh awful, don’t go, just so I can keep this little jewel all to myself. But, really, I think it may have been my favorite place in France and I’m strongly looking at how to get an EU work visa for next year just so I can live close enough to visit Metz more often. After settling in with my “luggage” (a backpack), we set off in search of dinner. Restaurants in France don’t typically open for dinner until 7 or 730, and it was Sunday, so even fewer were open. Eventually we found a little Canadian themed restaurant and decided to eat there.

I have been thinking about how to talk about the food in France. I went through several stages of love, disbelief, infatuation, rapture and awe while eating in France and I’ve decided that I really need to write a separate post to do the food justice. So for the moment, I will just tell you the restaurant was ah-maze-ing and I’ll do the blow by blow (or bite-by-bite) later on for all the fantastic places we ate.

We lingered a really long time over the meal and didn’t get back to the room until after midnight, but the gentleman serving our food never once made us feel rushed. We probably didn’t get enough sleep, but we were both just happy to be in such a pretty little town that we got up fairly early. We got ready slowly though, drinking our coffee and researching things to do in Metz as well as trying to figure out where we would go next and where we would stay in Paris. When we set off for lunch, Vixen suggested we ask the local tourist office where a good place to eat was, which turned out for the best because once again we ended up spending more than two hours over an impossibly good meal. When we finally finished our last cup of post dessert coffee we set off for the cathedral.

I don’t have a lot of experience with cathedrals. There are a couple in the US, but of course they aren’t very old. This one dated back to the 5th century. I had been admiring the exterior architecture every time we walked past it, but somehow I had not really been expecting the inside to be as high. I guess I thought there would be floors? So when we walked in and the ceiling just didn’t quit going up, I was really amazed. The building looked like it might have undergone a fire at some point because the stone walls were blackened in places. The stained glass windows also looked like they might have been replaced at various points in history because there seemed to be medieval, renaissance and post modern styles in the window art. There were very few other people in the massive structure, so it was very easy to feel the scale of the building. We walked all around admiring the art in glass, stone and wood. There was a birdsnest organ as well as the main organ, and for a while I just had to sit down and reflect on the sheer number of centuries that this building had been standing and been used as an active place of worship. Seeing this cathedral made me even more excited at the thought of going to Notre Dame in Paris in a few days.

After that, Vixen needed to go to see the Centre Pompidou-Metz, which turned out to be a sort of gallery space that looked like a large white tent and seemed to have a rotation of 5-6 different gallery displays. We ended up sitting in the little outdoor cafe area because I was starting to feel pretty icky. At first I thought it was just some jet lag and maybe allergies, but it quickly became apparent I was getting very dehydrated and also developing a wicked sore throat from my sinuses. So we left the Centre and set off to find a pharmacie on our way back to the flat. The French speaking pharmacist tried to help me out with my bad French, but eventually had to go get her English speaking co worker. She was able to help me find some rehydration powder as well as some throat lozenges which helped a bit. We stopped in a Carrefour to get some water and ended up with delicious fresh strawberries as well.

We passed by the Rue Taison, which is supposed to be a kind of Taiwan town, but other than the large plaster dragon hanging over the street and a few dragonesque signs around, I wasn’t really sure why. The shops are more French than anything else, and I didn’t see a strong presence of Taiwanese food or goods. It was still nice to walk through the little streets and see all the different architecture. Some buildings as old as the cathedral had been re-purposed into shops or hotels next to “newer” buildings that were a mere 200-300 years old. We stopped at a street vendor selling soft serve ice cream, let me just say that nutella-pistachio swirl is a magical idea.

By this point in the day it was becoming apparent that I did not merely have some desert to temperate climate adjustment issues going on in my sinuses, but actually a full-blown travel flu. The downside to so many flights in a row is the enormous exposure to other people’s germs. So we headed back to the flat so I could get some rest while Vixen went to view the river of her family. Somewhat sadly, I slept firmly until the following morning and missed out on the river island and what I am sure was another amazing dinner. Travelling while sick is really no fun since it takes a lot of your get up and go right out. I was feeling a bit less insanely flu-like after a good shower, so determined to keep on with my adventures through France.

Reims, Champagne Region

After some breakfast pastry detours (which I will explore more fully in the post about the food), we made it back on the road heading to Reims. We weren’t originally planning to do anything between Metz and Paris. We’d stopped in Metz to see my friend’s family river and she had a show in Paris. It’s only about a 3 hour drive, but we looked up what was between them just for fun. It turns out that the Champagne region is between them. I sort of vaguely remember when France threw a giant naming fit and everything that had previously been called “champagne” in the US suddenly became “sparkling wine”. This basically meant that in my life, I had never had true champagne. Even my champagne brunch in Dubai was really served with sparkling wine because I was too cheap to go for the Moet upgrade. We decided that we couldn’t really justify driving through Champagne without drinking any, so I looked up several different options for tours and tastings. There was one particularly helpful BBC article that outlined four houses, so we tried to reach out and contact each of those to make an appointment, but we weren’t doing it far enough in advance, because they didn’t email us back until 2 days after we’d left Reims. So if you’re dead set on a particular house, I suggest planning well in advance.

We decided to drive up to them anyway and see if we could get in. The first one we went to was GH Mumm, and the description was a tour of the process of making champagne plus a tasting. They told us we could join the 4pm tour, so we booked our spot and went off to check into our hotel. Our tiny little hotel, Alhambra, was in an interesting part of town, since we were in sight of a sex shop and a tattoo parlor, and also just around the corner from a school. The rooms were small but clean, there was a bathroom on each floor and a shower on the main floor. We were only staying for one night, so it wasn’t really an issue. The manager there was a Berber from Algeria and was very proud of the languages he spoke (7) and very complimentary of my “beautiful” English. Some of our conversation was in English, some in French, and some in Italian (which Vixen speaks quite well), but eventually he helped us by calling one of the other houses we were interested in, and we found out they had an English speaking tour at 4pm also. Realizing that we were only going to make it to one champagne house, we then had to choose based entirely on online descriptions.

The house we decided on in the end was Tattinger. Tattinger started out as a chalk quarry in the 4th century under Roman occupation. Later, in the 13th century an abbey was built on the chalk pits and the monks used the temperature controled caves to keep their champagne at a constant temperature. The abbey itself was destroyed during the French revolution, but the caves and cellars were used during WWII to house women and children, so there are carvings in the soft chalk walls from the people who lived there during the war. Then shortly after the war, the Tattinger family began to use the site for their own champagne. Wise choice. It was really amazing to see all of that history just piled up on itself underground. There were stone stairs leftover from the abbey that had once lead from the abbey to the cellars and now led from the cellars simply into the ceiling. The carvings from those during WWII were alongside chisel marks from Roman tools. And the whole thing was filled with over 2 million bottles of champagne.

Our guide told us about the champagne process, how they use the natural yeast in the fruit for the first fermentation, but add yeast and sugar later on to create the champagne from the still wine. I learned that most champagnes are actually a mixture of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes. Since the later two are black grapes, they must be picked gently by hand to make sure that none of the pigment leakes from the skins to change the color of the juice. The process takes a long time and involves several stages of fermentation, resting, turning and rebottling. I think the most fascinating stage to me was the removal of the sediment from the bubbly. The still wine is bottled with extra sugar and yeast, but it is corked to keep the gas that is released during fermentation in the bottle (making it sparkling).

However, as the yeast dies it forms a layer of sediment in the bottle that no one wants to drink. So there are these racks that gradually change the angle of the bottles over a period of 8 weeks. Two guys come in and turn the bottles and slowly change the angle from horizontal to pointing almost straight down. This process sends all of the sediment into the neck of the bottle. Then (this part is really cool) they freeze the neck of the bottle. This causes the sediment to freeze solid, so when they turn the bottle upright it stays in place, then they simply treat it like a cork and pull it out whole! leaving the clear sparkling champagne behind to be properly corked and placed in storage to age.

She showed us all the sizes of bottles that they distribute in, including a really giant one for extra special occasions. She talked about the different types of champagnes that Tattinger makes, and how they measured the quality of each year’s grapes, still wines and champagne blends to see if they deserved to be marked as vintage or not. I really just expected the structure and tasting to be the cool parts of this tour, but it turns out the whole process of champagne making is way more interesting than I thought it would be. Definitely a worthwhile stop over.

After the tour, we headed up to the tasting room. Vixen and I had bought the three glass tasting. Everyone got to try the Brut Reserve which is their most popular. I was pleasantly surprised at how light it was. I am so used to Brut sparkling wines in the US being very dry and kind of aggressive. This was far from sweet, but it was mellow and bright. Very enjoyable with a sort of amber warmth. The second glass was the Grand Crus, mixed from Chardonay and Pinot Noir in equal measure. It was just as mellow as the Brut, but I felt that it had more notes of fresh green. The third glass was extra special, the Blanc de Blancs which was made entirely from chardonnay grapes (unlike the others which are blended). It isn’t produced every year, but only when the grapes are deemed exceptional at the harvest. It’s only from the first press, and 5% of the wine used to make it are aged in oak barrels before they go into the champagne fermentation. The Tattinger website has a really lovely description of its flavor, and since I am not a sommelier, I defer to their adjectives, I’ll just say that I’m pretty sure it was the best champagne I’ve ever put in my mouth and when I am rich and famous, I’ll order it by the case for Christmas gifts.

We lingered a long time over our tastings and eventually the very nice folks there had to remind us that they closed up at 5:30. Half of our goal for the day was well and happily completed, so all that remained was to find a nice meal. I gotta say, in many ways Reims was a serious let down from Metz. I mean, I understand it’s a small town, but I would think with so many tourists coming through on wine tours that it might have been a little nicer. The traffic was prodigious, so once we made it back to our room, we didn’t want to move the car again until we left the next day, so we set out to find a restaurant we could walk to. Unlike Metz where walking seemed to be the main form of locomotion, Reims almost seemed designed for cars.

We walked to a small tapas place, but ended up not liking the diner menu so we kept going. Eventually we found a tiny fondue restaurant and decided to try it. More about all the wonderful food that was that place in the France food post, but it was amazing, keeping up with all our food experiences so far, and our waiter was a really cool guy who totally didn’t freak out at all when Vixen knocked the burner over and set the table on fire. We tried another new after dinner liquor and as I was complimenting our waiter on the amazing chocolate mousse that came with our desert, he decided to share another local wine with us! So it was that we found ourselves sitting in a tiny Swiss themed restaurant after hours finishing off a bottle of something local and delicious while chatting with our waiter as he ate his own dinner, meeting the owner (and his twin brother) and finding out about the local club/show/dj scenes in Reims. I. love. my. life.

The next morning I set out a little early to find us some pastry and coffee for the road. This is how I learned about the school nearby and passed the Reims cathedral. I stopped at a bakery and got chocolate croissants, but they didn’t have any coffee, so the man directed me 100 metres past the school to a shop that would have some. When I got there, I saw some folks enjoying an early morning glass of wine, giving me just one more reason to adore the food culture of France. Suitably armed, we hit the road for our last stop in France: Paris.

to be continued…

From Saudi to Czech

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve added anything here. Since leaving the Kingdom I’ve been having a lovely time travelling in several countries and hanging out with some friends who have also made the exodus from the US. I also caught a fun cold/flu thing which has had me moving a little slow and maybe not writing as much as I wanted. Tomorrow I’m heading off to Japan to start my new job and the next chapter of my adventures. It may take me some time to share all the amazing stories from the last 3 weeks, especially since I’ll be settling in to a new home/job/life soon, but I promise it will all get out there.


 

Leaving Saudi was a strange feeling. I didn’t feel any particular sense of relief or sadness, it just felt like walking out the door on a normal day. I had some last minute Saudi style adventures because my driver forgot about me (despite having been reminded only the day before) and the airport in Tabuk did not check my bags all the way through to my final destination. During my 5 hour layover in Jeddah, I managed to track down someone about the bags, because I did not have time to pick them up at Charles de Gaul and change planes. At first they tried to say there was nothing they could do, but I’d been in Saudi too long to accept that as an answer, and eventually got a manager who made someone go and find my luggage and reissue the stickers. And thank goodness, because I barely made it to my connecting flight in Paris.

After seeing several other ladies in the Jeddah airport dressed in non-Saudi clothes, including one Indian woman in a midriff revealing sari, I decided I could pack my abaya before boarding. It felt strange to be surrounded by people in a public place that way, but I noticed even more ladies had changed as soon as they boarded the airplane. Still surrounded by so many thobes and abayas, I felt oddly exposed in my modest western clothes. Once again I was asked to change seats to spare some man the trial of sitting next to a woman, and then had to explain to the French lady who I was seated next to what was going on. She had simply been catching a connecting flight from Kuala Lumpur and had no context for the Saudi airline custom.

When we arrived in Paris, she warned me about the poor organization of the CGD airport, and I said that after living in Saudi, nothing like that could really phase me anymore. A Saudi man turned to me and said that I sounded like I didn’t like Saudi, so I started to try to explain my mixed feelings and point out positive things, but as soon as I mentioned I had lived in Tabuk, his expression completely changed. Oh no wonder you didn’t like it, I’m sorry you had to live there, etc. We chatted a little about my week in Jeddah and how different it was, but even a native Saudi who was proud of his country expressed understanding for my frustrations when he found out where I’d lived.

My flight neighbor was right about the airport. Not only did the airline check all our passports as we disembarked, but we also had to go through passport control for the EU there in CDG regardless of our final destination. The security area seemed to be malfunctioning, so they asked me to take off my “jacket” so they could use the wand. This was really just a long sleeved shirt over my sleeveless shirt, and I was pretty upset about having to remove it, since I felt like they were asking me to take off my shirt while the ladies still wearing abayas were not asked to undress. After all the respect and privacy accorded to women in the Middle East airports (not just Saudi, but Jordan, Egypt and Dubai), this was a real wake up call that I was back in the West.

The line for customs was enourmous and I would not have made my flight if I’d waited patiently, but the people around me encouraged me to simply skip up and explain to others that I had only 15 minutes to make my connection, and this actually worked, no one got upset at all. I saw some other people try to walk up to one of the airport officials with the same plea and get turned back, so I’m glad I decided to rely on the patience of my fellow travellers to get up to the head of the line. I made it to the gate at final bording call! I didn’t actually realize this was passport control until much later because there was no bag searching and no declaration forms, they simply stamped a date in my passport and waved me through.

I had a big surprise arriving in Prague because I didn’t have to do any customs or passport control there at all. My friend explained to me that it was because I had done it in Paris, so that crazy wand search and little passport stamp were all the security I needed to be in the EU. We picked up my rental car and for the first time in over 8 months I was driving again. It’s so peculiar because the entire time I lived in China, I never even wanted to drive. To be fair, there was great cheap public transportation and prolific taxis, plus the driving was kinda scary. But somehow, being stuck in a place where I could not drive and could not move independently with public transport made the feeling of being back behind the wheel nearly euphoric.

My friend met me at the airport and guided me back to her apartment. She’s also a teacher and you can read about her adventures here. Some nice young men from her TESOL program showed up just as we did and helped move all the luggage up the three flights of stairs. Then we set off to find food, which turned out to be this amazing little restaurant called Martin’s Bistro wherein I had some really phenomenal food, the likes of which I really hadn’t had since the last time I was in Dubai.

On our way back we ran into a wine festival in a public park area and ended up getting happily buzzed on local Czech wines. I discovered Clarets and straw-wine, both of which I hope to cultivate a longer relationship with in the future. I also got a frozen yoghurt that was fresh made and mixed on the spot with frozen cherries for a fruity soft serve in a light and crispy waffle cone. The weather was simply perfect, sunny but not hot, and the live music was fun. It felt like the entire world was trying to welcome me home. As if that weren’t enough, we went with some of her classmates to a traditional Czech pub for dinner where I ate the heavy but delicious local food and watched the Russians get way too excited about the hockey game on TV.

Because I’d really only slept for a few hours on the flight from Jeddah to Paris, the whole thing felt like one really long day in which I’d woken up in my apartment in Tabuk and somehow been warped into this quaint Eastern European utopia of wine and food where I finally fell asleep. Little could I have known what else the universe had in store for me as I continued my journey.

 

Night Hiking

Seattle is not what you would call “warm” most of the year, but we do love our outdoor activities. For the last several years, I’ve been engaged in a swing shift job which keeps me indoors during the afternoons, evenings and weekends when most people like to enjoy the great outdoors after work and before bedtime. But now that summer has happened upon us, and the temperatures at midnight are above 45 degrees, I have taken up a new hobby: night hiking.

Remember when you were a teenager, and would relish the freedom to stay out after dark? Or better yet, when you’d sneak out of the house? Night hiking is like that. When I was in high school and couldn’t sleep, I’d creep out of the house and into the woods behind our yard, or go up to the front of the subdivision and climb the tall brick wall that bordered the main road. I’d just sit up there and listen to the sounds of the night and feel like I really owned my own space for once.

Now, there’s no one to tell me to go to bed, and I’m old enough that I’m not likely to get harassed for being a hoodlum. So there’s less illicit thrill in night hiking than there was in sneaking out after curfew. However, it does still elicit a wonderful sense of the strange yet calm. The boundaries and obligations of daytime occupations drift away, and the world is a magical place again.

There are really quite a large number of walking/biking trails around Seattle, and a tremendous number of parks (some of which are closed after 11pm,  most of which are not locked, but I would  never advocate any illegal activity, of course).

In the last several weeks we have gone to a  mountain trail in the Cougar/Squak Mountain area (flashlights are advised for emergencies, but if the moon is out, you can often see the path quite clearly without one), along the Inter-Urban trail in Shoreline, into a quiet still playground, and even a graveyard. Police might think its strange, but usually unless you’re drunk, loud or otherwise obviously breaking the law, they tend to be fairly cool when you explain its just a walk.

So the next time you’re wondering what to do with your night off, instead of heading to a bar/club/party, grab a good friend (and maybe a good bottle of wine), and put a tree line between yourself and civilization.

Thor’s Well Adventure — or, The Story of How Everything that Looked Like It Was Going to Suck Turned Out Awesome After All

This started because I saw one of those FB “39 things to see before you die” and realized this one way close enough to me to get to with very little difficulty. So I decided I would go this summer. Sadly, my regular camping buddy, Paul, was unable to attend, so i tried to make new camping buddies with Joe and Julie, both of whom were looking forward to the trip, but didn’t make it either.

Finally, refusing to give up, I have convinced JIngalls and Shelby to come with me, and even managed to pick up Jane  from Portlandia on the way.  First potential suck turned awesome.

Four people and camping gear stuffed into my car for several hours was a stretch, but everyone was in good humor when we arrived. Now, I’m an over planner, so the fact that I forgot to pre-book the campsite was odd, but I called them and was assured there were plenty of walk ins available. The second potential suck turned awesome comes in here, because while driving around the loop we spotted a secluded little camp site. We actually had to climb up a few stairs to reach it, and unlike every other site, it was totally surrounded by trees, and even had a little stream running by. Perfect gladed beauty that I would never have known about if I had pre-booked a site.

Dinner was amazing, thanks to Shelby’s suggestion of STEAK. We had sweet potatoes and brussel sprouts cooked in the coals and delicious fire seared steaks, with cocktails and s’mores. Go on, be jealous.

After a few hours of good food, great company and plentiful libations, we all tottered off to sleep (thank you Kevin K for the tent, btw). We awoke to the third thing that should have sucked… RAIN. Like torrential rain, you’re never going to get a fire going for breakfast rain, and also you’re packing those tents wet.

Enter the small town of Yachats, the gem of the Oregon coast. After a sleepy, rain laden pack-up of the car, we headed over (a whole 3 miles) into town to find a diner with eggs and bacon. What we found was the most amazing place I’ve eaten at in ages. Called the Alder Restaurant and Bistro, the first thing we noticed was the reserved parking spot for the chef. 

Upon seating, we are offered complimentary Prosecco and shown a menu that would make Gordon Ramsey cry tears of joy. All the ingredients were fresh, organic and local, and the preparation was full on gourmet, while the prices were on par with any other greasy spoon with dishes ranging from 8$ for an omelette to 14$ for the fresh local seafood fried oysters benedict. 

If the comp’d wine and top notch food wasn’t enough, they had desserts from the local Bread & Roses Bakery. I ordered a chocolate torte made with nut flour instead of wheat flour, and I seriously believe this may have been my first (or at least my greatest) food-gasm ever. So, rain ruined your firewood? No prob, have the most awesome brunch ever!

Oh, and did I forget to mention, the lovely staff at the Alder drew us our treasure map to find Thor’s Well, since it is apparently not on any of the signs.

Of we go, hand drawn map in had. The rain has stopped and the sun has come out. We arrive at the beach and spend the next two hours scampering over the volcanic rocks, exploring the deep chasms worn by the tide, watching the creatures of the shallow tide pools, and finding out how close we could get to the edge before the waves soaked our feet. Check these awesome photos!

Just as we finished, the sky began to cloud up again. We piled back into the car and headed north to the constant accompaniment of rainbows! We saw so many rainbows on the drive home. One triple rainbow had the main rainbow, touched by the second where the red of the second started where the purple of the first ended, and the third rainbow which was above the other two and separated by a bit was upside-down, with the red on the bottom and violet on the top!

I am so very happy to have had this experience. I am grateful to my friends who shared it with me and helped make it wonderful. And I am grateful to the universe for having so many beautiful things in it, and letting us enjoy them. 

 

This Adventure took place May 17-18, 2014