Saturday, December 29, 2007

Christmas wrap (up)

Just a quick note to say that we are off tomorrow to start a real live vacation: first to Taipei for a Chinese wedding (a family friend's step-daughter is the bride), and from there on to Chiang Mai, Thailand. The bags are packed, and we'll leave early tomorrow to catch the high-speed train to the capital city. The trip will take 90 minutes, instead of the 4+ hours it takes by car.

Our Christmas was very nice, and hopefully yours was, too. We enjoyed several great meals with friends, and the kids had a fun morning opening all the lovely gifties under the tree. Santa was good to them, as were their grandparents! I broke with tradition this year and went to see an acupuncturist, squeezing it in between opening presents and Christmas dinner. My neck has bothered me off and on for years, and I'd had a twinge for a week that was threatening to totally seize up. I will (maybe) give you the whole story later, but for now I'll just say that it was a success, and with follow-ups every day this week I am feeling very relaxed.

I must get to bed now, but I'll write more when I can, maybe from Thailand. Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Ironing sandwiches, winning the lottery, and other Taiwan commonplaces

I hesitate to say that the drought is over, but I do feel like writing more lately. Not to put all this on you, my small cadre of faithful readers, but it is hard to write to a silent audience. A person needs a little feedback, and sometimes she needs even more. But regardless of who stops by to read, I still need to sort through life from time to time and you, my friends, get front-row seats. No fear, though--I'm not going to unload three months' worth of the expat experience on you (at least not in one telling). But perhaps some highlights....

The immediate crisis in my life is my broken range. Since Thursday last I've been without both stove and oven, due to the fact that I complained that the oven was not heating properly: 55 minutes to heat the thing to 350º means wasted gas and a hungry family. Anyway, this led to a visit from our maintenance man, who deemed the problem bigger than he could handle and called in an appliance repairman. The repairman came and gave it a go, but realized a part would need to be replaced. Of course the part had to come from Taipei, so it would be Saturday--Monday at the latest--before he'd be back. He returned Tuesday. That was yesterday, and after he'd retrofitted the part (because it certainly couldn't be exactly what was needed straight out of the box) he discovered that there was another problem as well, requiring another part, this time (thankfully) a bit closer to home. He did come back today but still hasn't finished up the job. In the meantime I still have a family to feed and a strong desire to make Christmas cookies before the holiday passes us by, so I've had to get creative. Enter: ironed cheese sandwiches. It works, I did not invent it, and Cole prefers them now to cheese sandwiches made any other way. They actually cook much quicker, but there's a tendency to be a bit underdone in the middle (which, honestly, is what Cole loves about them: more melty than toasty). There was a little improvement today: when the repairman came by he hooked up the gas to the burners again, so at least I can make a decent supper. Cookies, however, are still on hold.

Considering how often I win the lottery here, you'd think I could exert a little pull and get these kind of problems dealt with straightaway. At this very moment I am sitting on two winning receipts (yes, receipts) worth a total of four hundred dollars. Of course, those are New Taiwan dollars, or NT$, so they're only equivalent to about US$12, but still, I won. You see, every odd-numbered month the winning numbers are announced and people all over the island pull out their stash of cash register receipts to look for a match--and I am right there with them. I once had five digits match, which was a nice little bonus of NT$4000 (US$120), but all my other winners have been small fry: three digits, about six bucks a pop. The great thing about winning, though, is that you don't have to go to some distant lottery office to collect (well, unless you win big). They can be used same-as-cash at any 7-11, and there's not much you can't find at a 7-11 here, so that's a pretty good deal. The whole point of the lottery is to ensure that businesses issue receipts in the first place. With everyone clambering for official, lottery-eligible receipts, the government has a much easier time of keeping track of sales and collecting taxes from businesses. Without the receipt incentive a lot of money would never hit the books, and there'd be no reliable record for the taxman. So what the government saves in henchmen they give back to people as lottery winnings. Well, not all of it, I'm sure, but I can't complain. Somewhere there's a million dollar winner with my name on it. I just have to keep shopping until I find it. If only they'd fix my stove, so I can go buy groceries and get back in the game.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Violet skies

I like blogging, I do. But the last few months have been so crazy: traveling all summer and then settling back in, the start of a new school year for Cole and Tim, and me heading up the pastoral search at our church. I am busy with life here, but not exactly the parts I want to write about. On top of all these duties and distractions, so many things that I would share about living in Taiwan resist capture. I saw the most striking hue cast across the low clouds at sunset the other day – a typhoon was passing to the north of us, and our sodden skies had dried just a bit, with clouds like wet cotton absorbing the light and melding the colors into one giant sheet of violet across the sky. It gave a dull glow, unearthly, and completely unphotographable. It just looks grey on film.

In the same way, when I sit down to write I fear that anything I try to put in words will be diminished in the end. I feel like I am drawing from a shallow well, so now I am planning a time to get away, by myself, to fill my reserves. I have months of observations of Nora in my head, waiting to go into her journal; I have pieces of a scrapbook for Cole tucked into various drawers and closets; I have essays, poems, manuscripts, that I want to finish, maybe publish, but no energy to do it all. I forget sometimes that my nature is more introverted than I let on, but I think when I can't write it's clearly time to step away from all the hubbub and give my soul a little rest.

We have a week-long break in October, as Taiwan celebrates the founding of the R.O.C.. I am thinking of places I can go for a day or two, either in the mountains or by the ocean. Somewhere where I can sit and think and write. In the meantime, I am happy to be where I am, doing what I am doing. But I do see that it's not giving back to me as much as I am putting into it. Blogging will resume, eventually, but maybe just not yet.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Kat, unplugged

Yes, I am still here. I took the summer off from blogging -- this is my Taiwan blog, for one thing, and I was 7,000 miles away -- and figured I'd get back into things once we settled in. Well, we've been without internet access for most of the last week, so my plans have been thwarted. I'm writing from the library at school, and will just say for now that we're all doing fine: one small earthquake, two small typhoons, and weeks and weeks of rain since we returned. So everything's back to normal.

Cole started 5th grade today, by the way. Can you believe it?

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Living high

For my birthday recently, we took a trip down to the new Dream Mall, the largest retail center in Southeast Asia (for the moment, anyway). The mall features not only a Marks & Spencer, T.G.I.Fridays, and Toys 'R Us, but tops off it's 121,000 ping (that's 400,000 square meters for the ping-impaired) with Taiwan's only Hello Kitty ferris wheel. Oh, yes. You can see it here (along with a giant cup noodles) lurking in the background. Everything behind us is mall. Mall, mall, mall. We've been three times and still have only seen a portion of it: Muji, Starbucks, Baskin-Robbins, Nitori, McDonald's, the National Palace Museum shop, Birkenstock, Mont Blanc, Hankyu (a Harrod's wannabe, but we'll take it), Mister Donut, and more. The entire fifth floor is devoted to children's shops and an indoor playground. There are three levels of underground parking (below a six-floor garage). The food court is massive. I don't even know where they've hidden the movie theatres.

For my birthday, however, our mission was clear: ascend from the ninth floor to the roof and finally – finally!– ride the ferris wheel. On our two previous attempts the lines had been ridiculous, but on a Monday, at five in the afternoon, we hit it just right: one couple ahead of us, lovely light, and fifteen minutes of spectacular city views. It really was a nice ride. (In this photo you can see the view from the ferris wheel, when we were just coming over the top, looking back at the main plaza where the first photo was taken.)

I took a dozen pictures (a couple more of which can be seen here and here) as we made the trip around, then we hit the ground running (the wheel never stops moving) and headed in for dinner. It was a great birthday, and a great way to wrap up our fourth year here. The kids and I leave tomorrow, and I'm ready to come home for the summer (though with not nearly as much on my shopping list anymore, since Kaohsiung is now a shopping mecca). I'm ready to see family and friends, ready for zucchini and raspberries and littlenecks, ready for cool summer days and no typhoons. But Kaohsiung is home now, too, and it will be good to come back in August and get back into the swing of things. Have a wonderful summer, everyone!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Free as a what?

A while back, when I was regaling you with tales of Nora's new underwear, I made the observation that, in Taiwan, any printed surface should be approached with caution. This is not quite true. Foreigners love to read the English on clothing, bags, scooters, panel trucks – we share our "best Chinglish" stories and laugh at how mangled English can be and still convey some meaning (maybe not the intended meaning, but still). I have never detected a sense of superiority in these stories – most of us have very limited Chinese skills, and we appreciate any effort to put things in our language – but we can't help but read anything romanized, and the results are strangely rewarding. There is no caution, only delight.

Some of us (well, at least one of us, ahem) actually buy things simply for their English content. I have a collection of canned drinks – several coffees ("let's be black," "let's be bitter," and the one everybody's searching for, "God"), a Snoopy chocolate milk and a matching milk tea (both with histories of their respective drinks), and a very Parisian-looking coffee with a poem by the great beverage connoisseur and caffeinated thinker Gertrude Stein. My favorite, however, has to be a tinned white fungus drink, which, quite appropriately, goes by the brand name "KKK."

All of this comes to mind because I've finally used up the last of a not-very-good shampoo that I bought last fall. We needed something other than baby shampoo in the guest bath since we had company coming, but Pantene or Dove or Prell wouldn't do. Oh, no. It had to be:

Sakura Moisturizing Shampoo

In such a crowed & nervous city,
I refuse to be the same,
In my own way,with my own style,
I want to be myself,
as free as a fish, walking along the
free my own pace,
as I wish..

I am as free as a fish, walking along this city. If only the shampoo were better – I'd buy it every time. Now that I've run out, though, I'll just have to find something else to amuse the guests.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The birds and the beads

A Japanese White-eye slammed into our window this week. He was alive, breathing really hard, but otherwise totally still. I was afraid he'd broken his neck, but after 20 minutes or so he flew off, so I guess he was just shaken up. They're very pretty birds, quite small, and they do have a lovely song.

Speaking of song, we were awakened at 6:30 this morning by a temple parade: gongs, horns, drums, wailing voices – all of it being broadcast from the back of a truck so we wouldn't miss a note. Firecrackers punctuated the music. Big ones. This month has been unusually active for the local temple – they've strung up red lanterns, a couple miles' worth, all along our road, to mark which areas fall under their jurisdiction. This is for the benefit of roaming spirits, I believe, not just for us foreigners in the neighborhood. The next nearest temple had something going on today, too, so it could be a Taoist, island-wide thing, or something local. I wish I had more insight into those goings-on. I will have to ask my Chinese teacher to shed some light on it.

We had an outing today to the aboriginal (Paiwan tribe) village of Santimen (pronounced "san-DEE-mun"). This is my fourth trip to visit the bead shop there, but every time I go there's something new to look at, and the drive into the hills is refreshing in its own right. There are beautiful pieces of jewelry to buy, which I did, but the main reason we went was for the DIY beadmaking craft. It's a bargain: for NT$200 (about $6.00 US) you get to make your own large glass bead, then choose accent beads and have it made into a bracelet or necklace right before your eyes. The kids both made necklaces; Nora's is a gift for someone (I won't ruin the surprise), and Cole made a "pearl of great bravery" for himself. The beads all carry meaning within the tribe, and were worn like badges, proof of someone's experience or character. They were originally made from clay, but have been translated into glass. I'm sure we'll go again soon. Tim hasn't been yet, and just this evening a friend said, "Oh, let me know next time you go...." Maybe next weekend. Let me know if you want to tag along.

Friday, May 04, 2007


Now that I have my camera back, I've added some more pictures to Formosa Fix. The funny thing is, I've only uploaded photos taken the day before my camera broke, back in January. But I will get snapping and post some new ones soon, too.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Odds 'n ends

Time for a little loose-end trimming. With summer travel just around the corner, I sense the need to start wrapping things up – not that I can't blog from home, but my mind is already halfway across the ocean and I don't want to leave a bunch of unfinished Taiwan stories lying about while I chase after it.

First, the MV Doulos. We did get a tour the night I took doubles to Roopa; she was leading her team in drama practice, but her friend Hannah graciously led us around. We covered the whole of the ship, from engine room to laundry room, and then had dinner in the mess with both of them. (Roopa happily skipped the chow line and just nibbled on her doubles.) My camera was broken at the time, but the picture I would put here for you if I could is the view from the darkened ship's deck, looking into the brightly lit laundry: giant, bright yellow commercial washers line the walls, clean shirts on hangers hang from the pipes that traverse the ceiling, and in the foreground, hanging in the doorway, a dozen clown wigs – hot pink, lime green, rainbow-striped – dangle from the drying rack they're clipped to. It startled me and made me laugh. (And curse my broken camera.)

A few days later I did pick up Roopa for her Big Day Out, and Hannah joined us, too. They were in need of a day of rest, so we picked up some steak and potatoes at Dollar's and came back to our house for dinner. They were thrilled to sit in a room that wasn't moving, on a real couch, and just have the time to catch up with each other. Their duties on board keep them running in different directions, which is harder on them as their time to leave the Doulos approaches. Hannah will leave this month, and Roopa has to decide if she will leave in September and return to Trinidad, or remain on board one more year before marrying and moving to Australia. It was a pleasure to get to know both of them better, and to learn about the inner workings of such a venture. The protocal for courtship on a boat full of young men and women was particularly fascinating.

Next, the bread. My rosemary-sea salt loaf had good flavor, but I was surprised to see that the salt which I sprinkled on top blackened. It didn't burn so much as smoke, so the flavor was actually fine, but aesthetically, black salt was not what I was looking for. I will dig around to see what solutions I can find. In the meantime, I have another loaf going today, cinnamon raisin this time. It'll go in the oven in another couple hours.

And I recently added another book to my reading list, Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones. I got it for Christmas, blazed through it, but then forgot to mention it here. Highly recommended reading, especially if you read his first book, River Town. (It stands alone, so read it either way.) Hessler has a real talent for finding the hidden threads that connect seemingly disparate ideas and events, and his general love of China comes through, even as he struggles, frustrated, to understand her.

I, on the other hand, have no brilliant thread running through these lines, other than the relief of getting these lingering details out of my head and into print. I feel a bit freer now to move forward, but I will try to stay in the present long enough to give you a few more stories about happenings here.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Man cannot live by bread alone; woman, however...

I just found a boss hog bread recipe (love you, Eryn!) at Like Clotilde, I did not find immediate success. My first attempt was dough soup, baked into a golden brown curling stone in my Le Creuset dutch oven (curling stone, because a hockey puck would be too small). But undaunted (thank goodness Clotilde admitted her own third-time's-a-charm luck with this recipe), I made a second loaf today and, my dears, it's nearly gone. I did share a large hunk of it with some fellow bread-desperate friends, but mostly it's just been the work of me slicing into it all evening, slathering on the butter, and telling whoever walks into the kitchen, "I'm so happy! I made good bread!"

Find the recipe here, and then pull out your scale – kitchen scale, that is; pull out the bathroom scale and you may never make bread again. The key to this bread is the moisture content, and humidity is gonna mess with standard cup-of-this, cup-of-that measurements, as will variations in measuring a cup of flour (scoop? spoon? tap? level?). The loaf I'm nibbling on now (yes, right now), is plain Jane, strictly by the book. I have started another loaf tonight with the addition of three sprigs' worth of fresh rosemary needles, and will top it with coarse sea salt before baking tomorrow morning. See, that's the beauty of it: there's no kneading. You mix it, let it sit forever (or at least the next 12-18 hours of forever), drop it into a hot cast-iron lidded pot, and bake in a very hot oven. No mess. No kneading. No more crappy white Taiwan bread.

I am SO happy. You have no idea.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Who is the crazy lady hugging a box of Grape-Nuts in aisle five?

Oh, that would be me.

After the last post got me thinking about raspberries, and how much I crave them, I started thinking about how many things we can get in Kaohsiung now. I mean, raspberries have a short season in Washington, and luckily I fly home at the start of it, so I can't really complain about how scarce they are here. But other foods I have longed for are beginning to hit the shelves on our little island, and for that I am deeply grateful. When western foods become available, not only do I get to enjoy them right now, but it also frees up a lot of space in my checked bags at the end of the summer. My bring-back list is getting shorter and shorter every year.

Here are some of the goodies I've found around Kaohsiung in the last nine months:

Grape-Nuts (I really did hug them).

Cream that doesn't taste funny. It's still UHT, but it has no weird ingredients, only cream, which makes a huge difference in homemade ice cream and such. Plus, it's from Ireland, where all the cows are clean and happy.

Green peppercorns.

Bourbon vanilla extract.

Orzo, or rather Rosemarino, which is a bit more needle-like but still cooks up into a lovely pilaf.

Sea salt, and loads of it: New Zealand salt, Chilean red salt, local salt -- it all makes me happy.

Yogurt starter, with even more bacterial strains and a creamier taste than the starter that I've been smuggling over here for years.

Chili powder -- Costco size.

Rye flour. Haven't bought it yet, but I know where to find it now.

Brown rice flour. Bought it, but haven't used it yet. Somewhere I have a great lavender shortbread recipe that calls for it.

Ginger snaps.

Fresh dill! A friend bought some at the morning market and shared it with me. It's salmon with dill butter on the menu tonight.

There are still some essentials that elude me: beef bouillon, couscous, tapenade, chutney, vanilla beans, lentils, dried pears, powdered sugar that doesn't make your frosting gritty. But when you consider how cheap the fresh produce and meats are here, and how easy it is to get western staples, it looks more and more like a cook's paradise. And with all the extra room in my suitcases, maybe I can bring more books. Or travel lighter. There's a thought.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Signs of spring

Easter is behind us; kids are counting down the days 'til the end of school, and teachers are counting down the hours; the days are getting warmer, but rain's in the forecast.

All true, but that's not really what I mean now when I say signs of spring. I mean spring in Taiwan, spring as an expat, spring that takes some getting used to. (By the way, was anyone else out there taught to capitalize the seasons? It is a deeply entrenched habit, one that I fight only half-heartedly.) Anyway, spring (Spring), for me, is this:

Walking through piles of dry brown leaves that have finally fallen off the trees.

Looking for giant caterpillars, or their dessicated casings, nestled in the crevices of our school wall.

Mangoes the size of a lap cat.

Making mental lists of what I need to buy in the states this summer. Every morning for the last two weeks I have said to myself, "I should buy two of those lipsticks this year." Every morning.

Dead baby birds in the carport. Did they fall? Were they pushed? Why don't they get eaten?

Constantly feeling like I'm forgetting something. Too many parties, projects, and weekend trips as the school year winds down and people make ways to spend time together.

The accompanying feeling of sadness, kept just below the surface, as the end of the year means saying goodbye to dear friends.

Chirping geckoes.

National auto taxes (bad), and an automatic extension on my IRS filing (good).

Daylight that lingers long after the garbage truck's anthem, Für Elise, has faded away.

Swinging between two extremes: wanting to see everyone this summer, and wanting to do nothing all summer.

Scarred and charred hillsides, after families have come to fufill their duty to ancestors on Tomb Sweeping day. There is some small irony in the living honoring the dead by wiping out all of the plants that have grown around the tombs. We show up at a grave with flowers; they show up with weed trimmers and lighter fluid.

Strawberry season is over.

Raspberries await.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

What would Jesus do?

Just came back from school where Nora and I had lunch with Tim. On the way home Nora was holding a bookmark Cole gave her, imprinted with a cross and those ubiquitous letters, WWJD. She held it up and asked, "What does this Bible say?" (I guess the cross gave her that connection.) I told her, "It says, 'What would Jesus do?'" Her eyes lit up. "He would give me a present before Christmas gets here a long time from now!"

Well, why not? Actually, today being Good Friday and all, I think we can say He already has.

Blessed Easter, everyone!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Two words

Last weekend I had an enjoyable exercise in following one's impulses: two little words I blurted out set into motion a series of events that, in fact, continue to unfold. I don't mean to be oblique, but I am rather tickled by how the week has gone, and it can all be traced to one moment. Last Saturday night, we headed down with some friends to Fisherman's Wharf on the Kaohsiung harbor. Docked there at the moment is the MV Doulos, which sails to ports all over the world to provide books, medical assistance, and, when possible, a message of faith. The crew of 350 are all volunteers, from the captain on down, and crewmembers commit to a one- to two-year assignment on the boat. Over the years, more than 19 million people have come aboard to buy books and tour the vessel; she was built two years after the Titanic, and was first used as a cargo ship (she carried onions) but was later converted to a cruise ship. She has been running as a ministry since the '70s.

So this is how my two little words came into play. Before boarding the ship, we all decided to find some dinner at the restaurants along the wharf. Nora and I stopped at the first place we came to, a quiche and coffee shop, but the others wandered farther on looking for something else (something more manly, perhaps). At any rate, as Nora and I were eating, a performance began near our table, songs and dances from the drama department of the Doulos. We finished up and made our way over to the stage to watch them. Nora loved the dancing; the audience loved Nora (at one point, all the women squatting down in the front row had their cameras trained on her -- she is such a fascination to them). At the end of the show the members introduced themselves. The crew is made up of people from all over the world, and this group of about ten represented North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Central America. This last one, a woman from Trinidad, had already gotten my attention by using some American Sign Language in her music performance; now she stood on the stage and said where she was from, waiting for some recognition from the audience. People had clapped for France and Sweden and Canada, but no one seemed to have any idea where Trinidad was. She was playing up her disappointment, but still, I felt moved to say something. I called out, "Go, Trinidad!" She smiled, I smiled, the Chinese ladies around me giggled, and that seemed to be the end of it. Nora wanted to see the dancers, though, so we walked over to where the troupe was putting away their gear. The woman from Trinidad, Roopa, came up to me, so excited that I had even heard of her tiny island. She offered to give us a tour of the boat, so I rounded up everybody and we made our way up the gangplank. We did not get far, however, as tours were supposed to end at 8:00 and it was already past. But Roopa extended the offer if we were to come again.

I wasn't sure when we might make it back, but as the days passed I kept thinking about Roopa, about how far away from home she is. (Yes, I'm far from home, too, but I get to go back every summer, and people come to see us here, and the time seems to go quickly. She lives in a room that's smaller than your average walk-in closet. She shares it with three roommates.) I got online and Googled "food of Trinidad." I soon discovered the national treasure that is doubles, a fried bread filled with curried chickpeas. I found a recipe for it; I found I had all the ingredients. I knew we would go back.

Friday was a half day for the kids, and Tim was free in the afternoon, so after lunch I started making doubles [see my recipe here]. Everything went together easily, the house smelled fantastic (cumin and curry and onions, oh my!), and before long I had a bag with ten baras (fried bread rounds) and a little Chinese lunchbox full of channa (the curried beans). Tim came home and we piled into the van, back to the wharf to deliver the goods. I had sampled the doubles, and thought they were great, but I had no idea how close to real they were. Once on board, I handed the bags to Roopa, who asked what was inside. I told her to take a peek and see if it looked familiar. She poked around in the bag of bara and looked up at me with big, big eyes. "Doubles? You brought me doubles?" I smiled. She smiled, and then she started to cry a little. I did, too. How can you not? She was so happy to have a taste of home, and I was so happy to provide it. I feel a real kindredness with her, for whatever reason, and am still searching for ways to make her time here a little more comfortable. Monday is her day off, so I am picking her up at 1:00 for her first and only outing in Kaohsiung (the ship sails Tuesday for Taichung). I haven't decided yet how we'll spend the day, but doubles might factor into it. She did say they were very good.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The thrill of the road

Check out this video for a taste of driving in Taiwan. It has several great illustrations of Kat's Taiwan Law of Vehicular Attraction: When three or more vehicles are on the same roadway, all traveling at different speeds, their paths will align at the narrowest, curviest, or otherwise most dangerous part of the road. Pedestrians, poor weather, and road crews increase the effect.

The video was taken somewhere on the east side of the island. It's beautiful country, but it's hard to appreciate the view when you're behind the wheel.


Monday, March 19, 2007

A little housekeeping

I just dusted off the books section on your right, there. That's been wanting some attention for a while. You may notice that I've renamed it, so I can lump in more titles, not just what I'm reading At This Moment (because I'm not a diligent-enough blogger to give you the play-by-play). Gilead and The Time Traveler's Wife are both novels; I would recommend the former to anyone – it was excellent. The latter I enjoyed, but it did get a bit steamy as the story wore on, so if your sensibilities are easily offended, perhaps you'd best skip it. I was too far into the story to put it down (and after she worked Gordon Gano into a scene I was willing to overlook many a transgression). Overall I liked it quite a bit. Time travel is hard to wrap your ahead around, but then again, I've got to use my fingers to figure out what time it is in Seattle, so it's partially just me.

The other two titles are non-fiction: Madeleine L'Engle's Story of a Marriage is a beautiful description of her life with husband Hugh, which she recounts while also parting the veil on his last months and days. Very emotional, but lovely. The Art of Travel I've just started. It looks to be an enjoyable read, one that I considered setting aside for the long flight home this summer, before remembering that I no longer get to read on the airplane because I am den mother, pack horse, and chaperone to two. I choose sleep over books now on those hops across the pond. At any rate, it's an intriguing look at why we travel, and how. Not a travel guide, but rather a guide to one's motives for traveling (or not, as the case may be).

I have cleaned up the list of "My" links, as well. I had added another blogging neighbor recently, but found out that she has switched over to posting photos on Flickr rather than blogging. So, Laura, you're out. (Auf Wiedersehen!) I updated my friend Clint's link so you go directly to his blog, rather than his photography site. Do check out his pix too, though, and stop by the grand opening of his new studio in Bellingham at the next Art Walk. He's very skillful with the camera.

So everything's tidied up now, and I can blog in peace and harmony. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Another busy day

Some days get the time sucked out of them, but others seem like they last forever. If you'd asked me this morning, I would have guessed that this was going to be one of the former. I will spare you the play-by-play of my day, but I will say that it involved getting Nora to preschool, mailing a package, cashing in some winning receipts, taking Cole to the pediatrician, having a follow-up with my own doctor, and taking a load of hemming and mending to the seamstress. It was a little crazy, but some days require a lot of you, and that's just the way it is.

Two things stand out from my busy day, sitting here now in a quiet house. The first happened at the hospital. I have a national health card with my name on it, last name printed first in the Chinese way; it is the same on my alien resident card and my hospital ID. Perhaps because they are familiar with the western order of names, every nurse or doctor who sees my name on those cards calls me by my last name – or rather, the feminine version of it: Michelle. It is uncanny, that not once in very many visits has anyone ever called me by my right name, nor even my right last name. So today I sat waiting for my number to come up, for the nurse to come out and say, "Please? Michelle?" And she did. That was not surprising. What did catch me off guard is that while waiting to pick up some pills at the pharmacy, the player piano in the lobby (this is a very posh hospital) started playing the theme to Cheers. I was humming along, and then came to that bit. You know, where "everyone knows your name." It was very hard not to laugh. But when the pharmacist handed me my prescriptions and said, "Thank you, Michelle," I very nearly lost it. Poor woman, she must have thought I was nuts.

The other great moment came after our visit to the seamstress. This errand has been a long time coming, Tim and I having amassed a sartorial stash, two bags worth, of things to be altered or mended. Our good friend Tiffany offered to go with us, to interpret as well as get some of her own things worked on. We went after dinner, when the woman's sign was usually set out. We arrived at the home of the seamstress, however, only to find the doors locked, the lights off, and the neighbor insisting that no one there did sewing anymore. No money in it, he said, which I can believe. (Most repairs will run you a dollar (NT$30), but if it involves a zipper it might push three bucks.) Undaunted, Tiffany directed us to a different part of town where she had seen another seamstress' sign before. The three of us walking down the main drag of the neighboring little village, bags of clothes hanging from our arms, must have been a sight. We ended up speaking (well, Tiffany spoke and we tried to look like we were following the conversation) with a shopkeeper who told us that the seamstress we were looking for was no longer in business (a disheartening trend), but there was another not too far down the lane and around the corner. At the OrangeKitchen we found success: behind the darkened cafe front, a back room with a pewter-colored, war-era Mitsubishi sewing machine and glass cabinets of thread was opened to us. We were made very welcome, as our host offered us chairs ("Sit-a down!") and summoned the seamstress in the family. She looked over our various garments (eight pairs of pants, one shirt, one skirt), took measurements, made marks with her yellow chalk, and then announced it would all be done tomorrow.

We decided to walk back to the car via a different lane, one which passed a local church (we had passed two temples on the way in, so it only seemed fair). The lane began to narrow, and then ended -- well, not quite. A passage led off to the left, which was the direction we needed to go. We slipped between the houses on that path, listening to muffled voices and kitchen sounds bounce off the stucko walls, walking farther into the dark, only to slip into an even darker, narrower path before emptying out onto the street. Adventure is too big a word for such a brief detour, but the sensation was there, for a few moments, that we were doing something we hadn't done before, walking where no one we knew had walked before, seeing one more corner of Taiwan which will be filed away under "Remember when?" It was a good day, all in all. Long, but good.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Night noises

It is the last day of February, in fact the last hour of February. I stayed up to take a warm bath and my last dose of pills for the day (apparently pertussis is what's been going around). As I walked through the house, shutting off lights, I was so pleased to hear the night noises drifting in through the open deck doors. Only February (!), and outside crickets, frogs, some unknown nocturnal birds with a whooping call, all sing to me through the screens, as tan geckoes skitter across. This has been a particularly cool winter (I will refrain from calling 50º cold), and a rainy one, but I'm not sure I'm ready for spring yet. Late winter days here are just about perfect, as are the nights.

Happy Chinese New Year, by the way. My camera isn't working, so I've got nothing to show you from our week off -- but then again, you can probably picture us staying home and laying low without any visual aids. The whole of the country goes visiting on New Year's, so we waiguoren tend to stay put. As it is Year of the Pig, we ate a lot of bacon and I made sausage. I'm not sure how the poor beasts came to symbolize good fortune, but we did enjoy our share of them. Do not, however, draw conclusions about how we rang in the Year of the Dog....

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Pretty as a picture

One of the many diversions available to foreigners in Taiwan is professional modeling; it is not hugely lucrative, but the catalogs make for great souvenirs. The key to being a successful model is being the right height and the right color, the former varying from job to job, but the latter being a fairly fixed idea. Nora, it turns out, was just the right height for a job this week (95 cm), and a most desirable shade of pale. Actually, it's not strictly about skin color, but about looking foreign. Many half-Chinese children model as well, but I know of some mixed-race families where one sibling gets work while the other, more Asian-looking, child does not. The manufacturers know what sells their product: the notion that across the great Pacific little fair-haired, pink-cheeked boys and girls are wearing the very same clothes that hang on Taiwan's department store racks.

So today, Nora and I travelled up to a photo studio in Tainan with a couple other moms and kids, to shoot a children's clothing catalog. The siao jyes oohed and aahed over the kids, and promptly set about dolling them up, teasing their hair and dusting powder on their little noses. It was fun, at least for the first couple hours. It turned out to be a very long shoot, running well past dinner time, and There Were Tears. But the kids were great, the clothes were darling, and the money will be set aside for a rainy day. It's not a way of life I plan to pursue (being a studio mother, that is), and opportunities to model are fairly rare anyway, but perhaps the next time a job comes around Nora will be up for it again. She certainly likes the camera.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Funny undies

I only have a minute, since I'm trying to get to bed before 11:00 these days, but I just had to share: I picked up some new "big girl pants" for Nora this week, white with a cute little duck design on them. They were sealed in their packaging, so I couldn't really check them out until I got home, but, I mean, it's little girl undies. What could possibly go wrong? (Okay, that's a rhetorical question; this is Taiwan, and any printed surface should be approached with caution by English speakers.) So, I get them home, and upon closer inspection I find that next to the happy little duck is a tiny little fish, labeled "fish," and a tiny little crab, labeled... "crap." Naturally.

I'm thinking maybe I'll frame them.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

New Year notes

Whenever I start feeling like I'm so behind in posting, I click on my neighbor's link to the right here to cheer myself up. (October? Thanks, Matt! I feel better already!)

The new year is off to a pretty good start. My parents are here for a visit, which is great, but Tim, Cole, Dad and I have been feeling a bit off (a couple of nasty bugs have been circulating the building since Christmas), so I'm hoping that it all blows over soon and we stay healthy the rest of their time here. We're planning on touring the east side of the island next weekend. Last Saturday we spent the day in Kenting -- lovely weather, and hardly anyone else on the beach -- but the last two days Cole's been sick and we've not done much.

I have been spending very little time on the computer lately, not on purpose, but as a result of trying to get to bed earlier. Something had to give, and for now, at least, it's computer time. I'm finding that the earlier I go to bed, though, the harder it is to get up in the morning. I will keep at it, but seriously, it makes me want to sleep more, and that's kind of not the point. Could be a flu-related thing, though, so I'm not making any plans to stay up late. Yet.

Not much news on this side of the world. No major aftershocks since the quakes in December. The holidays were quiet and pleasant (except for said earthquakes), but now school's back in session and life's picked up where it left off before the break. We're looking ahead to Chinese New Year already; nothing like two weeks off to make you wish for more. Sort of like the sleep thing....

Speaking of, off to bed I go. Will post some pix soon of our travels.