Charmed Life

“Can I swap places with you?” asked Bart.

Bart and his wife Sofie, both Belgian, were walking by, and had stopped to chat with Wendy and I as we sat at a poolside table on the Lido deck. The two of us were in the midst of 宵夜, a late night snack of leftovers from lunch at a Bergen seafood restaurant: steamed mussels and boiled fresh shrimp, washed down with Grolsch beer (me) and hot tea (Wendy). Since seafood tends to smell rather fishy, we decided not eat them in our stateroom, nor bring them into the Lido restaurant to eat. Besides, peeling shrimp is quite messy.

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No, Bart was not asking for a sample of the crustaceans (he’s from the land of moules-frites, after all). I had just told him the itinerary for my six-week European trip. “You’re going to all these beautiful places I want to go to!” he exclaimed.

Six weeks in Europe. Never mind complete strangers, pretty much all my friends were in awe and envy that I was going to go gallivanting around the world, while they were stuck at home with work/raising kids/saving the world, etc.

But as I related my news to each of my friends, I caveated and asterisked the heck out of my impending travel plans. (I tried to downplay my charmed life, untethered to any productive responsibilities. But my friends aren’t much fooled by my act.)

The first two weeks would be spent with my mom Wendy (and her cousin Shujun with husband Harry) on a cruise to Norway*.

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Disembarking from the Rotterdam in Rotterdam

The second two weeks would be spent with Dad (and Joe) traveling independently around Scotland and England**.

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The boys in Edinburgh

The third two weeks would be spent with my step-mom Yeeta (and 20 other people) on a Thailand-based escorted package tour of Slovenia and Croatia***.

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Roving in Rovinj

(Thank goodness I only have three parents, and none of them are Elizabeth Taylor.)

The downsides of this trip were:

  • – I don’t like cruises.
  • — Taking my Dad traveling is indeed ‘travail’ – hard work.
  • — I don’t like escorted package tours.

The upsides of the trip were:

  • + I’d never been to any of these places before.
  • ++ I wouldn’t have gone to any of these places, if it weren’t for my parents.
  • +++ After six weeks in Europe, my spoken Cantonese and Thai would improve immensely.
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And I got to do cool things like photograph drying fish in Norway. By the way, it smelled exactly like Thai or Chinese salted fish.

Even though I’m an over-planner, I couldn’t have planned the trip this way even if I set out to do so. It was just a complete fluke that the dates fell into place, and that all these destinations were conveniently grouped in Europe, the most densely compacted of continents. (Ah, Europe. Where the language changes every 50 miles, and until the euro came along, the currency changed every 100 miles.)

Dad wanted to go to Scotland and England (even though he’d been there before.) Yeeta wanted to go on a package tour, to anywhere, so long as it was somewhere she had never been to before. Since it was a milestone birthday for her this year, I told her I’d go with her, even though I generally avoid escorted package tours like I avoid Ebola.

(Dad absolutely refuses to go on package tours as well. It’s been a long-standing bone of contention between them. But they’ve now figured they could go on vacations separately, and the sky wouldn’t fall on their heads.)

I told them I wouldn’t be available until October, since my work contract ended September 30, as did my house-sitting stint.

“October? It’ll be cold in Scotland by then! I want to go in September,” said Dad.

“Well, my work contract ends September 30 . . .”

There was a tour of Slovenia and Croatia put on by Yeeta’s favourite tour operator starting in mid-October. Neither of us had been there before, so Yeeta and I signed up for it. Yeeta didn’t want to go to Scotland with us because she didn’t want to be gone for such a long time.

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Our tour was ‘sponsored’ by a bank, which got us a discount if we paid with their credit card. Hence the obligatory social media photo pose.

This would work out quite nicely, I thought. After I wrapped up work and house-sitting in September, I would spend October in Europe, and be back by the first week of November, in time to do the Rim-to-Rim hike in Grand Canyon, which had been arranged even before I even knew I was going to Europe.

Meanwhile, Wendy had signed up with Bob for a 14-day cruise of Norway during the last two weeks of September. They were going to go with her cousin Shujun and her husband Harry from Canada.

In mid-August, Bob found out he wouldn’t be able to go on the trip. Wendy asked me to go as a substitute. I said no, I had to work and house-sit, and besides she had Harry and Shujun to hang out with. Plus she had a single supplement by default, from Bob.

Pleeeeease……”

Wendy never pleads. Underlying that entreaty was: “You’re taking your father on a trip to Scotland. You’re going on a package tour with your step-mother even though you hate package tours just because it’s her milestone birthday. Yet you won’t come with your mother on a cruise, even though it’s my milestone birthday too.”

Solomon had me not only at the umbilical cord, but the jugular. I have three parents; and if I was obliging Dad and Yeeta by going on a trip with each of them, I should also do the same for Wendy.

I agonized over the pros and cons. I didn’t want to flake out on my responsibilities, but it was possible to cut short on the work contract. And I could make arrangements for the house-sitting. These really weren’t sacrifices. It wasn’t like a “if I had to decide which of my three parents to save if I could only save one or two from a burning building” kind of dilemma. This was a good problem to have. It’s a blessing that each of my parents are still healthy enough to walk, eat and go see the world. It’s a rare luxury for adult children to be able to join their parents traveling. Lucky Celia indeed.

I slept on my decision. The next morning, I told my client I was quitting early. I made arrangements about the house-sitting. I emailed Wendy to say I’d go with her. But if things miraculously worked out for Bob by Labor Day such that he could go on the cruise, I could change my flight and let him go instead according to the original plan.

Then I got the following text from Wendy:

“It is not right to make u make major changes to accommodate me. Bob said the third option is to forgo his part and I go by myself. I think that is best so you can keep your plan to work till end of September.”

Argghhh! I had told her the exact same thing the first time around, but she was deaf to the message, until Bob said the same thing to her.

“I said I would go, so I’m going!” I told Wendy through gritted teeth.

Then I emailed Dad.

“Since you haven’t bought your plane ticket yet, it turns out I can meet you in Inverness earlier, as soon as September 27, since I’m going on a 2-week cruise with Wendy to Norway that ends on the 26th.”

Dad called me back. “You couldn’t go with me in September when I asked you because you said you had to work, but now you’re going with Wendy on a cruise?”

Sometimes, you just can’t win.

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Polar Reversal

(Subscription readers: If you don’t see the photos in the email, I recommend you go directly to the blog site)

“So after you’re done with the car, you just park it here, in front of the gate to the dock [where our cruise ship was docked], and you leave the key on the little ledge inside the driver’s side wheel well. Then we’ll come pick it up.” The car rental company agent took a photo of my driver’s license, jotted down my credit card information, and that was it. I had rented a car, a little blue Subaru for the day we were on shore in Narvik, Norway to drive ourselves to Polar Park.

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Before I left home to go on this cruise, I had looked up the shore excursions for each port, out of curiosity to see what kind of attractions there were at all these little coastal Norwegian towns I had never heard of. I had also talked to my friends who had been on cruises before, and they were only too happy to give me advice.   “Really? I get to give you, Miss World Traveller, tips on cruises?” joked Hubert. He told me that the shore excursions booked through the ship were usually overpriced, so one could often just show up on shore and there would be local tour companies offering a similar tour for much cheaper. The only saving grace of the ship’s excursions was that if there was a delay, the ship would definitely wait for their excursion clients to come back, and not sail off without them!

Narvik had boasted of an attraction called Polar Park, which billed itself as the “World’s Northernmost Wildlife Park”, about 68 km away inland. I can easily skip churches, but I didn’t want to pass up the chance to see animals like wolves, bears, and deer. The exchange rate was 1$US = 8.6 NOK (Norwegian Kroner). So I had persuaded Wendy (my mom), Auntie Shujun and Uncle Harry that if we rented a car for $80 US, and paid the zoo admission of 215 NOK (about $30 US) per person, we’d still come out ahead, instead of $150 per person by going with the ship’s excursion. They agreed, so I booked the car online.

“Are there signs telling us how to get to Polar Park?” I asked the rental car agent.

“Oh yes, there’s signs.” I had printed out google map directions before I left home, but still, it was good to know. I figured we couldn’t really get too lost in a rural area; there weren’t too many roads. It was a big attraction for small town Norway, so I was sure there would be signs. Even on Highway 5, there are tons of signs for Andersen’s Pea Soup, and that’s hardly worth writing home about.

“This car isn’t very clean,” said Wendy and Auntie Shujun from the back. An empty plastic soda bottle rolled around on the floor. Small town in Norway, end of tourist season, I didn’t expect to find much choice in the fleet. “So long as it gets us there and back . . .” I shrugged in the driver’s seat and shifted into first gear.

I was glad I had rented the car. So far on the cruise, Uncle Harry had been paying for all the wine we ordered for dinner each night, and wouldn’t let Wendy or me pay, even though we tried to insist. It’s a very Chinese thing, to fight for the honor and privilege of picking up the check. In a way, it’s also chivalrous or chauvinistic, so I call it the ‘old geezer’ act. It usually amuses non-Chinese whenever they see it happen, whether or not they understand what they are seeing. So in my renting the car, I would be able redress that balance a bit, along with paying for the zoo admission and filling up the gas later. I would be drinking the wines Uncle ordered with a clearer conscience.

It was a clear, sunny crisp day. We left Narvik, driving north across a suspension bridge that was also slightly cloggy due to reconstruction. Wendy and I ooh’ed over the pretty fall colours, since we don’t get much of that in California. Uncle Harry and Auntie Shujun aah’ed as we skirted the coast, winding through mountains and a couple of long tunnels, since they live inland in the flatter areas of  Ontario. After being on the ship for so many days, and walking around the port towns we stopped at, it felt a little odd but liberating to be driving a car.

An hour into the drive, someone requested a pit stop, so I pulled into a restaurant/convenience store parking lot. To back out of our spot to continue our journey, I had to shift to reverse, which was to the left of 1st and 2nd gear (In my car at home, the reverse is to the right, below the 5th gear). I tried to shift, but each time I pressed the gas pedal, we went forward, not back.

“Here, get out and let me try,” offered Uncle Harry. He got into the driver’s seat, and tried shifting. “The clutch is a bit soft. Maybe it’s worn out.”

“Well, the rest of the gears shifted fine on our way driving here,” I pointed out.

“Maybe it’s just the reverse gear doesn’t work, maybe it’s broken.”

“Ai yah, not only is the car dirty, but they gave us a car that doesn’t work!” chorused the back seat.

“That is pretty awful,” I agreed. How could this company be so irresponsible and reckless to rent out a car that without a functional reverse? It was shock to have something like this happen in Scandinavia, where you expect everything to be orderly, efficient and done by the book. “I’ll email them when I get back,” since I didn’t have a SIM card in my phone to call them.

Wendy, Auntie Shujun and I got out to push the car backward, while Uncle Harry steered the car. What to do now? We decided to press onto Polar Park, since we were more than halfway there, rather than waste our limited time to go back to complain and exchange the car for a fully-functional one. The car’s forward mobility was fine. We simply had to cross our fingers that when we got to the parking lot of Polar Park, they had drive-thru type parking spaces so we wouldn’t need to reverse!

We ended up missing the turn at the major roundabout for Polar Park. Continuing along the coastal road E10 for 20, then 25, 28 miles, we found ourselves in a rural area, with buildings far and few between, with no sign of Polar Park. We eventually found another gas station and asked.

“Oh you’re in Bogen now, you have to go back and turn at the roundabout at Bjerkvik about 28 km back to take E6.” said the clerk. It always blows my mind that even in the dinkiest of towns of Norway (and the Netherlands), the locals are pretty fluent in English. I can’t imagine a gas station clerk in the US being able to give directions to lost European tourists in German, French, Spanish, etc.

When we backtracked to the major roundabout there was no sign for Polar Park, but tons of official directional signs for the site of the 1940 Battle of Narvik. I thought that was odd; I would have thought that most tourists who come to these parts would be more interested in seeing a zoo than a battlefield, and that the directional signage would reflect that.

When we arrived at Polar Park, it was already noon. There weren’t too many people there. We found a drive-thru parking spot. Uncle Harry elbowed me out of the way and won paying for the admission tickets, though not before incurring the ire of European man in front of us, thinking we were trying to cut in line.

Polar Park is set on a long swath of hillside, along and above a creek. The day we were there, they had wolves, arctic foxes, brown bears, lynxes, elk, musk ox, deer and reindeer on display. (They also have wolverines, but not on display then.)  While some of these animals have been socialized and are used to humans, the setting itself seems to have been kept natural. There are various enclosures each the size of a neighbourhood park, spacious enough to give the animals roaming space; even in confinement, they need enough elbow room. Each enclosure is habitat for one species of animal. For the human visitors, it really does take a lot of walking uphill and downhill to get around and see them all. The enclosures are full of bushes, trees and natural vegetation, so you have to peer mindfully in stillness, until your eyes are tuned in to little movements that are not of leaves and plants rustling in the wind.

Just a short distance past the ticket office as we headed towards the main enclosures, we passed a wolf-visit enclosure, where some other visitors had each paid 1,500 NOK to hang out with the wolves for 30 minutes. (It was also possible to hang out with the arctic foxes for the relative bargain of 200 NOK per adult.) The wolves had been socialized enough to interact with visitors, and were excitedly loping around the group. One wolf stood up on its hind legs, resting its paws on the shoulders of a trembling young Asian woman, as if to waltz with her while trying to sniff and lick her face. “Don’t be scared, don’t show fear,” said the zoo guide in a firm voice.

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Dancing with wolf

Once we got to the main enclosures, we usually had to walk all the way around the chain link fence perimeter to spot the animals. There were only a handful of other visitors when we were there. One stocky, middle-aged woman by herself seemed to be pretty good at quickly spotting where the animals were, so we followed her wherever she went, very quietly, so as to not scare or disturb the animals. Perhaps she was a professional wildlife photographer, or simply had honed instincts. Or maybe she had that vibe that drew animals to her. Being a photography buff, Uncle Harry was very interested in her camera, with a very long/large lens. Later she told him she had driven up from Switzerland in her own car over the course of a month, and her camera cost over 200,000 Swiss francs.

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The animals can be in an elusive, private mood and cocoon themselves away. Or they may deign to show themselves and come closer to the fence where people are. Who knows why animals do what they do, or when they’ll do what. Maybe sometimes they’re curious about the visitors. Maybe sometimes they’re bored and want to people-watch. Maybe they like getting attention from visitors who are respectful, calm and quiet (when they’re not fighting over who’s paying).

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Arctic Fox

The coats of the arctic foxes had changed into their winter whites from the summer browns. Covered in snowy fluffy long fur, and bushy long tails, they looked adorably cuddly, like a doggier type of cat. Their faces and pointy ears were grey. With their squinty eyes, they looked drowsy and relaxed basking in the winter sun, although they were very aware of us as they curled up in front of us, with the chain link fence separating us. “After you walk away,” their expression seemed to say, “we’ll relax our guard and take a real nap.”

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There were two wolves in the next enclosure. We’d spotted one deeper in the enclosure and walked up to the chain link fence to take closer-up shots by zoom. Wendy was so engrossed in taking pictures of that wolf in the distance, she was completely oblivious to other wolf that had come up to her, scoping her out.

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…oblivious to the other wolf that had come up to her

The wolves began to walk away, but still sticking close to the fence perimeter, as if to entice us, so we followed. They would glance at us, as they paced around, stretched, yawned, and sat down to rest in front of us. Maybe they had caught scent of the ham and cheese sandwiches in our backpacks we had packed from the breakfast buffet.

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These wolves had calm demeanors and dignified expressions. I didn’t find them intimidating, and it wasn’t just because they were safely separated from me by a tall fence. They just looked like leonine dogs. Whereas before I had pooh-poohed the idea of paying 1,500 NOK to interact with the wolves, now I began to think it might have been worthwhile after all.

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We stood there taking photo after photo of them through the diamonds of the chain link fence, until we had enough shots, put out cameras away, and simply gazed at each with mutual unabashed interest. Then one of them howled, as if to communicate with the wolves higher up the hill that were out of sight in another enclosure. That set off a call and response racket that went on for a few minutes. Maybe they were lamenting their enforced separation from each other. Or maybe they were just exchanging gossip about what they might be having for lunch. It was an eerie racket, mournfully fierce, unbearable to my untutored ears. If I heard such noises while camping in a nylon tent, I would be terrified.

The lynxes were the most reclusive of all the animals of Polar Park. With their tawny coats with black splatters, reminiscent of a leopard, they were very hard to spot. The tips of the tail and the points of the ears are a solid black on adults; on the cubs, the black was a more faint smudge. I primarily know the lynx as model of Mercury car; I really had no idea what they were. They are bigger than domesticated cats, and much smaller than wild cats such as tigers and lions.

Luckily, we were with the Swiss Miss, who saw the mother followed by two cubs. The mother was very wary: as we came in closer to look at her through the fence, she would move to the right. We started walking towards the right as well, following her. Her cubs stayed close to her, and as she ran as if to shake us off, we started jogging too. The mother ran though the tall grass, but followed the inner perimeter of the fence, so we could still track her, pausing intermittently. It made her hard to see (and photograph). It was curious: if she didn’t want us to see her, she could have run inwards towards the center of the enclosure and be completely out of our sight. But she was always within several feet of us. Was it a form of practice, a game for her of cat and mouse? Her cubs, with the naiveté of youth, paused to check us out with unabashed curiosity.

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Lynx cub

Having seen the highlights, Uncle Harry headed back to the car to rest and eat his sandwich, since he was tired. The rest of us, continued on to look at the red deer and the musk ox. The red deer stag reminded me of my high school classmate Kevin, with its wide set eyes perched high on an inward looking face.

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Red deer stag

The musk ox is the most cartoonish looking of bovines(?). With a short bow of a horn over its eyes, the tips taper into a flip up curl on either side of its face, giving it the look of a Tory judge on a bad-wig day. One of them entertained us by getting up and using a stump still rooted in the ground to scratch the inner ‘armpit’ of his front left leg and then backing up to scratch his rear. The stump had been carefully sawn off to the right height. The musk ox wore a shaggy coat of long fibres, like a bison. His front hump was taller and more pronounced than his hindquarters.

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Musk ox

“There will be a special feeding today at the lynx enclosure at 1:30 PM,” the ticket seller had told us. It turned out that it had been arranged for a large group of tourists . . . from our very own ship. Even though we had already seen the lynx and her cubs, we thought it would be fun to see them again while feeding. So we tagged along with the group, but stood at the far end. The zookeeper had a bucket of food in her hand, and she stood by the door to the enclosure, calling “Josefa . . . Josefa!” a few times. But the mother lynx didn’t come out, and neither did her cubs.

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 . . . waiting in vain . . .

The three of us smiled lightly at each other. We all felt lucky and smug that we had gotten to see Josefa and her cubs, even without feeding, and that our visit to Polar Park was a bargain, compared to what the tourists in the group paid. “The only benefit of going with the ship’s excursion is that you won’t get lost driving yourself!” we joked amongst ourselves.

We headed back to the visitor’s center and the car. Uncle Harry would probably be worried that we would be late in getting back, and missing the ship, but we figured if we left BEFORE the ship’s tour group, we should be able to get back to Narvik in time. Uncle Harry had tried fiddling some more with the reverse gear, but the problem remained.

On our way through Narvik, I had spotted a gas station and pulled in to fill up the tank. “Let me pay for the gas,” said Uncle Harry.

“No way,” I said. I ran off into store/kiosk to pay. “I’m at Pump 4,” I said. “Do I give you my credit card now or later.”

“Someone is already paying,” the clerk nodded towards the window. Uncle Harry had spotted the ‘pay at pump’ option, and had whipped out his credit card to pay, while I had wasted precious seconds going inside.

“Garghh!!!!!!!!”

“You’re not supposed pay,” I scolded him, as I started up the car. “Please let me pay.”

“No, you already paid for the car rental. That is only fair.” Uncle Harry retorted.

“Well, you paid for the zoo tickets as well. So you better not buy any more wine for dinners!” I glared.

“Then what am I supposed to drink? Gasoline?”

All four of us burst into laughter simultaneously in the little blue Subaru.

FAST FORWARD to one week later. I was a tautly strung up bundle of nerves driving to pick up Dad from Inverness airport because:

  • I had gotten lost trying to find the Inverness Railway Station car rental office – which turned out to be in a kiosk in the shopping mall across the street
  • I was driving a beast called the Nissan Qashqai (Qinghai? Qaddafi? Is it a Chinese or Libyan name?) that was much larger than what I normally drive at home. (This was on behalf of Dad. Apparently he prefers to ride in bigger cars now. When he last came to visit us in the States, he made me rent an SUV to drive him around.)
  • I had not driven on the left hand side, on narrow roads, liberally peppered with roundabouts since five years ago. I was rusty.
  • I didn’t know if my Dad would actually arrive at the airport on the flight. If he missed his connecting flight to Inverness from Manchester, he would have to figure out how to contact us (he had no smart phone) and how to get to Inverness, since the next direct flight would be the following day. He is not quick on his feet, literally or metaphorically.
  • We were late – if the flight had arrived on time. We were critically late – if Dad had indeed arrived on the flight – we might have missed him. If Dad didn’t see us at Arrivals, he would conclude we weren’t coming to pick him and simply catch a cab to the hotel on his own.

I found an empty parking space in the airport short-term parking lot, but misgauged the turning radius. I shifted to reverse to back up. The ‘R’ was to the left of the 1st and 2nd gear.

Once again, the reverse gear did not engage. I was stuck, blocking the lane.

“Let me see,” Joe tried to shift it to reverse, but he couldn’t figure it out either.

When it rains, it pours: everything had been going wrong today, and now this? How was it even blinking possible, that two rental cars in a row couldn’t go in reverse?? Argh!!

I spotted a man walking in the parking lot with a roll-on bag, and rolled down the window.

“Excuse me,” I hollered with the most sheepish of smiles. “We’re American tourists. We can’t get our reverse gear to engage. Can you help us?”

He came over. “Usually you have to press a button or knob or pull it up,” he said fiddling with it. He pulled the waist of the skirt around the gear stick up the shaft. The reverse gear clicked into place. “There you go!” Aha, maybe that’s what I was supposed to have done in the Norwegian rental car as well.

And fortunately Dad was waiting in the arrival lounge. “When I didn’t see you, I thought maybe you had missed your flight to Inverness and weren’t in town yet!”

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Can you name the six languages on this sign?

Dressing in boring vs. vivid colours

I came across this reader comment in response to a NYT article on boys who like to cross-dress, and I think this person hit it on the nail:

Maybe clothing for boys is just too dull and restrictive. In the 17th and 18th centuries, men’s clothing was colorful and tight and elaborate. And sometimes pink. Men and women wore beautiful jewelry. Maybe these boys are trying to tell us that our current version of masculinity is dull. MARCY LERNER, New York

I don’t have kids, but every time I shop for nephews and nieces, I’m struck by how gender-bound clothing colors and styles are. Pinks and purple dominate items for girls. Trucks and sport-themed items in manly blues and greens for boys. Really, there should be shirts with racing cars in pink, or a husky brown pajamas with butterflies.

I think there’s a carryover into different cultures as well. American/British men are more averse to wearing anything that might whiff of sissyness, like a pink shirt, or carrying a man bag, whereas European or Asian men wouldn’t think twice about it. When we were walking around London this spring, it seemed like I was in Magritte-land, but instead of every man in a bowler hat, it was every pasty-looking bloke in a black anorak and black backpack. (And since Joe and I wore our screaming orange and green rain jackets respectively, we stuck out like sore thumbs!)

The men from more uptight cultures stick to boring shades of black, gray, khaki and brown. Ugh. Boring colors do nothing for your skin tone and often makes you look so unattractive, guys. Plus it camouflages you into the urban landscape, so that if you’re walking/biking around, you’re at greater risk of being hit by inattentive drivers who don’t see/notice you.

What’s even more depressing is when you see guys of a non-white/ethnic extraction in the US wearing the same boring colors. Their grandfathers back in their native lands in Asia or Africa might have worn really colorful/patterned clothing which flattered their skin tones, but their American descendants look washed out in grey hoodies and black t-shirts, to blend and assimilate with their peers.

Yup, our current version of masculinity is dull. What would it take to shove a mindshift for men so that they can confidently/comfortably dress in more vivd and decorative clothing? Is that the real reason why men dress in such boring colors/patterns, because they’re worried about being labeled ‘gay’? I can’t believe men really LIKE such boring colors.

In this respect, it’s better to be a woman today; there’s a wider range of dress which is acceptable, from pastel florals to rich embroidery, full spectrum of the rainbow colours. We can even dress like men (YSL’s smoking jacket!). Aren’t men even a little bit envious of that? And we can wear those boring blues/blacks/grays/browns if we want, usually when we’re too lazy/rushed to try assemble an outfit.

(I had cut out this newspaper article last year, meaning to write about this. It’s so wrinkled now as I’ve been carrying it around. I was afraid I’d lose it and forget. Now I can properly recycle the clipping.)

Movement and Circulation

I keep thinking that I didn’t do much traveling this year, but that’s not entirely correct. It’s true I only went to two places I’d (sort of) never been to before: North Carolina and Virginia. But I did also go to old stomping grounds: Vancouver, NYC, Washington DC and Hong Kong.

FREQUENCY

A week in Hong Kong completely spoiled me.  I never had to look at a schedule, since MTR comes every 5 minutes or sooner, the bus comes every 10 minutes or sooner, etc.  When I came home, the first day I went back to work, I was screwed up because I missed my light rail train, which meant I missed my Caltrain connection. This added 40 minutes of waiting/transfer time on top of the 30-minute travel time. “What do you mean the train doesn’t run every 5 minutes?” I was indignant in my jet-lagged haze.

The second day I went to work, I simply jumped on the next train that showed up on the platform. “Hmm, why is this train stopping at San Antonio?” I thought it was part of the revamped Caltrain schedule. Then the train approached San Carlos . . . “Hmm, it doesn’t seem to be slowing down to stop. Oh, it’s not stopping.” It ended up stopping at Hillsdale. I was lucky, the next southbound train that I could take from Hillsdale to San Carlos arrived 3 minutes after I got off, so I wasn’t too late for work.

Of course, there’s similar issues on New York subways: if you don’t pay attention and hop on the Express train by mistake, it may skip the stop you want, in order to get between major stops quicker. Which happened to us once on this trip. But since we were being tourists not on a schedule, it didn’t matter.

WALKING SPEED

What I have noticed that’s common between both Hong Kong and New York City is the average pedestrian walking speed seems a lot slower than I remember. I attribute my walking fast to a habit acquired early in childhood: having to keep up with my longer-legged (older and taller) cousins in Hong Kong, or risk getting left behind and/or lost.  This has made me appear to walk at a freakishly fast pace relative to everyone else in more laid-back places, like Bangkok and the Bay Area. When I visited NYC for the first time in 1994, it felt like a homecoming of sorts in spite of the place being completely alien to me: I walked at the same pace as everyone else, so I fit in.

The equally frenetic and driven pulse of both HK and NYC seems to have mellowed out a bit. Slower walking – I attribute to people fiddling with their smartphones as they walk (a universal phenomenon): they’re distracted and walking slower.  (Of course it makes them more susceptible to getting their smartphones snatched and stolen by thieves, or getting run over. I’m sure somewhere out there, there has been an incident where a motorist who was texting collided with a pedestrian who was texting, and it’s undetermined who was at fault.

FRIENDLIER

People in both cities have also become a bit more polite, driven by the need for providing good customer service for tourism-driven economies. I used to think salesladies in Hong Kong the rudest people on earth, especially coming from Bangkok.  Now they are just helpful as sales clerks in Thailand.

On this latest trip to the Big Apple, I found a fake rhinestone and blue fur tiara in the floor of a taxi-cab and wore it everywhere the rest of my time in NYC. New York being New York, no one bats an eye an anything. It was perfectly normal, just as someone walking a brown goat on a leash with a pearl collar down lower Broadway was normal. What was surprising was how people were downright friendly. My tiara attracted seven ‘Happy Birthdays’ from strangers, as well as a “Congratulations, let me see your ring . . . you’re already married!?”

AUTO-PAY TOLL

I’m surprised at how few people use auto-toll to pay for tunnel fees in Hong Kong. None of the taxis we rode used it. None of the folks whose cars we rode in used it. You’d think they’d have incentive to use it to save time. I wonder what why.

LEFT-RIGHT-LEFT

One of the enduring legacies of the Brits in Hong Kong is the left-hand drive. Usually that also functionally dictates how people walk on the left hand side of the road as well. This usually leads to passing or faster traffic on the right, no? But Joe noticed something odd on this trip to Hong Kong: on escalators people who stand are on the right, and the people who hurry/walk up the escalators are on the left, like we do here in the US. Why is that?

COINS

Every time I visit my dad, I end up sorting and ‘cashing in’ all the coins he’s collected since my last visit. It’s my three-in-one good deed: (1) I reduce the clutter in his house; (2) I put coinage back into circulation, which reduces the need to mint coinage; and (3) I get some local spending money without having to deal with the mordida of foreign exchange commissions.

Last year, when I visited him in HK, I accumulated enough to pay for a very nice shabu-shabu dinner for five adults with all the spare change. I had to lug the coins to HSBC first though, where they charged him a percentage fee for coin counting and converting it to banknotes. (I really need to educate my dad on using Octopus card to pay for the small purchases, and avoiding the whole spare change problem.)

This visit being so recent on the heels of my last visit, Dad hadn’t squirreled away as many coins. I couldn’t take them to HSBS, so I sorted the $1, $2, $5 and $10s into piles of $100, and then took them to the customer service booth at different MTR stations on different days to load them onto our Octopus cards.

The 10-cent, 20-cent and 50-cent pieces were more of a problem. I can’t take those to MTR and no one else really wants them. I finally hit on the idea of using to buy drinks from vending machines. Machines can’t protest. Joe got Schweppes ginger beer, which is really not as good as Bundaberg. I got a Schweppes grapefruit soda in honor of my colleague Lauren, who had told me she missed those from her time as an exchange student in Hong Kong. I did the obnoxious thing and had Joe snap a photo of me guzzling it on his smartphone and then emailed the photo to her!

BIKESHARE

We tried out Capital Bikeshare in Washington DC: our first time ever using a bikeshare service. It worked pretty well for us as tourists. $7 for a 24-hour membership, and you can sign up for an account right at any kiosk with a credit card. Rides of 30 minutes or less are ‘free’, so we just biked between pods and parked.

Even the glitches and trouble-shooting worked well. You get issued a new code each time you check out a bike to unlock it. The code can either be read on screen or be printed out on a slip of paper. If the kiosk has run out of paper, and you didn’t memorize the code from the screen, all you have to do is wait 5 minutes, when the code expires, and then log in and get another code issued.

Another glitch we encountered was when we wanted to return a bike, but couldn’t because all the pod parking spaces were taken by existing bikes. You could look up the next nearest pod with available space to park your bike.

The equipment was OK. Many had bells where the clicker was broken. Some had seats which were impossible to adjust. But for short rides, those nuisances are tolerable.

I got Joe to take a photo of me on my bikeshare bike in front on the White House, which may be ironic. I understand that few people ride their bikes past Tiananmen Square anymore, it may even be illegal?

There’s lots of pods, close to most of the tourist attractions. I hope the Bay Area version will eventually be as dense/good/critically massed. I have to admit I was a bit of a doubter on bikesharing before, but now I’m sold on it. But I wonder how I would use it as a local, as opposed to a tourist. Why wouldn’t I simply buy myself a beater-bike?

SHUTTLES

We also rode the DC circulator shuttle quite a bit, to get to and from Georgetown, since Metro is not close by. It works pretty well at $1 a ride.  Although the maps are slightly confusing (some show outdated routes.) While underground Metros are usually faster, surface buses have windows on the streets, allowing to you discover things you otherwise wouldn’t know about.

TRANSLINK

We got to ride Translink for the first-time ever in Vancouver! It may sound silly to consider this a major accomplishment, until you consider how many times I’ve been to Vancouver in the past couple of years, and still not manage to check it out. I was impressed with the frequency of the trains, almost as good as MTR, even during mid-day.

CLIPPER

A shout-out to VTA; for having upgraded their Ticket Vending Machines to enable Clipper card financial transactions. I had given up on doing any web-based transactions with my Clipper card (definitely no auto-load!) because their user-interface and customer service is so crappy. I was buying my monthly Caltrain pass in person at the customer service window in my office. Sometimes there would be a queue – I get irritated with having to wait in line. Now I can use my credit card to add cash, or buy fare products (not just VTAs, but other transit agencies’ as well) or just to see my account balances simply by walking to my neighbourhood light rail station.

Hey, did Clipper card change its name from Translink because Vancouver copyrighted the name?

When you grow up . . .

“… what do you want to do?” My grandmother’s brother-in-law (he must be at least in his 70’s) asked me that this past weekend at her 90th birthday. He hadn’t seen me since I was 2, so in a time-lapse way, that was sort of a reasonable question

When I grow up indeed.

Lately, I’ve come up with lots of a new ideas for a new job, simply as an escape/alternative to the stress of my current gig. A couple of months ago, after Guy Deslisle won the big prize at Angouleme, I fantasized about being a cartoonist, but I can’t draw. A couple of weeks ago, it was after reading a wrenching-yet-inspiring story about doctors in a Kabul hospital that, I thought about getting some sort of medical training that would allow me to do something heroic-feeling.  But I don’t think it’s any less stressful.

Last week, I hit on the idea of learning to sight-read music, so I could become a professional music-sheet page turner for concert pianists. You know, those people who stand on the side and flip the pages for musicians who haven’t memorised the piece, and need someone to turn the page because they can’t take their hands off their instrument?  Yeah . . .

Even the parts of my childhood which I thought were normal, are not.

I have fish-out-of water conversations all the time, given my slightly unorthodox upbringing. Last week, I had two separate f.o.o.w conversations with people at work, coincidentally about San Francisco.

1) D. and L. are both native San Franciscan Chinese. D grew up in the Avenues, and mentioned that there were some parts of SF she’d never been until she was dating her future husband. Like the Mission.

I was pretty surprised. “Where did you go for sunshine, then?”

“Chinatown! Downtown!”

“Chinatown? It’s pretty cold and foggy there too, no? I used play in the Portsmouth Square playground and I would be freezing!”

“You went to Portsmouth Square playground?! We never went there. It was too dirty and unsavory!” D and L looked at me aghast.

“Oh. Well my parents were from El Cerrito, and probably didn’t know any better.”

2) Later that same day, I was carpooling to an event after work in Union Square. The traffic on 101 was pretty bad. My colleague M was driving, and her car has a GPS. We found ourselves in the relatively free-flowing left-lane to go towards Civic Center/Golden Gate Bridge. “That’s OK, just stay in this lane and we can cut through this way,” I said. I manually navigated* us across Market, up Larkin and then over to the Ellis –O’Farrell garage.

“Gee, you know your way around San Francisco pretty well.”

“When I was in high school in El Cerrito, I spent a lot of weekends hanging out in the City.” (BART was pretty convenient for getting from EC to SF.) “Wait, didn’t you grow up in Fremont?” I asked, thinking Fremont also had a BART station, albeit much further from SF.

“Yeah, but my parents didn’t let me out much.”

“Oh. . . ”

I keep forgetting that it was unusual for high school kids in my day to go exploring SF by themselves via public transit.  I went by myself in the beginning, because I didn’t really know anyone yet when I started at ECHS. Then when I became friends with Chris, we would go together by BART and Muni bus to SF to check things out, like museums, foreign movies, etc. To this day, Chris’ mom will say to me that it’s really neat that I took Chris to places like that when we were in high school. I never understood why it was such a big deal. But after my colleague’s remark, maybe I understand a little better.

For me it was a matter of course that if I wanted to go somewhere, and I could get there by transit, I would go. My mom likewise thought nothing of it, and let me go as I pleased**. I guess that’s another example of my mom being somewhat liberal compared to the parents of my other friends.*** On one hand, kids may not want to deal with figuring how to get around on their own by transit, and would prefer to get a ride. On the other hand, even for kids who are willing to take transit, their parents might not let them take transit themselves. Or maybe it’s a transit-schedule and map-reading thing. Some people don’t know how to read maps (but they might be able to navigate mentally with landmarks.)

Maybe I should stop telling people that I went around SF on my own by transit when I was in high school, because it makes me seem weird and/or my parents seem negligent. I have to admit, my skills at navigating in SF came later after I got a car and I would often drive with friends to SF. (I guess it was a proximity to El Cerrito thing.) But maybe being able to navigate SF by transit also gave me the confidence to drive around SF and not worry about getting lost.

*Last fall, when I was travelling, Joe had friends visiting from Hong Kong, so he took them sightseeing in San Francisco. He called me later, “I missed you that day.”

“Oh that’s so sweet,” I was touched by his sentiments.

“Yeah, it was really hard to have to drive AND navigate at the same time.” Joe doesn’t know his way around SF as well as I do, so usually I’m the human GPS.

** Actually all three of my parents had that type of trust in me. My dad and step-mom were relatively liberal also in letting me take the buses in Bangkok by myself when I was in junior high. This was really useful for getting to the library on Surawong Road on Saturday mornings.  Most of my peers weren’t allowed to go anywhere by themselves; they had to go with an adult, in case ‘they got snatched.’ Back then, buses were usually packed to the gills. You’d have to be pretty stupid to try and kidnap someone in the scrum of scores of passengers. Besides, would you really want to kidnap someone poor riding the bus, because anyone who could afford to would avoid the bus at all cost.

***Although in some ways my mom was over-protective. I wanted to buy a bike and ride to school. (The original Ohlone Greenway under the BART tracks runs through El Cerrito.) She wouldn’t let me, because she was afraid I would get hit in a traffic crash.  To this day, I regret not having fought her harder for this. Two years’ worth of gasoline I could have saved. What a pity.

Never too late to say thank you

It’s funny, there seems to be a recurring theme of me giving belated thank you’s in my life. Some things you take for granted, or don’t realize how valuable they are, until much, much later. Then there’s a specific trigger which switches on a light bulb over my head, and inspires me to specifically tell people how much I appreciate what they did for me.

I thanked my mom when I was 30, for having introduced me to the classic Chinese folktales of Journey to the West when I was 6.  (This was inspired by another ABC who told me he had no idea what I was referring to when I mentioned Monkey. ) I was so grateful my mom gave me that cultural reference.)

I thanked my cousin when I was 40, for taking me camping and teaching me to build a fire without lighter fluid when I was 10.  (This was inspired by a lecture by Paul Theroux, where he talked about being a Boy Scout and how profound camping had an impact on him.) I am grateful that I don’t have hang-ups about sleeping outdoors.

I thanked a former director 10 years after the fact, for the direction and free rein he gave me for first major project I worked on. (This was triggered by the frustration I had working at another agency subsequently on a similar project, and having to deal with the lack of support /interest from management.)

So recently, I made another belated thank you to a former manager of mine. She had organized a good-bye party for me several years ago when I had wrapped up delivery on a bike project I worked on full time, and leaving the agency.  I don’t think I merited it, especially since I was merely a consultant (a dime a dozen at this particular agency), and at that point my manager hadn’t worked with me for very long.

But that manager was a very nice person, so she took the time and effort to organize a good-bye party for me. (I honestly can’t remember much of it, except the nice touch where I was given a bottle of bicycle-branded wine as a parting gift!)

The trigger was that I had organized a good-bye lunch for my one staff-person who was taking a new job elsewhere.  She was my staff-person by default; her most recent manager had left a month ago.  Since I was the last manager standing, I took it upon myself to ask whether whether she preferred a luncheon or a cake-gathering.  (At this agency either or, or both are common.) I was short on bandwidth –work being really hectic, so I only offered to organize one.  She asked for a luncheon, and gave me a list of people to invite. In due course I sent out the emails and booked the restaurant for a date during her last week.

Not long after the luncheon date had been set, the staffperson went to talk to the department head, and mentioned that she expected/hoped for a cake party so she could have the opportunity to say bye to other people in other departments. The department head came and asked me (knowing I was her manager) about organizing a cake party. (He hadn’t known that I already had organized a luncheon for her, since she hadn’t included him on the list of people to invite.)  I then explained that a luncheon had been arranged, but since he was asking, I didn’t feel as if I could say no, and reluctantly organized a cake party as well. But I was livid, because it was short notice; I was really busy and short on time; I had already given the staffer a choice of one, not both; and she had gone behind my back to ask the department head about it.

I really wasn’t feeling gracious about this at all.  A couple of my other colleagues helped plan and do a lot of the stuff like picking up coffee, and setting up the room, etc.  So it worked out OK.  But organizing these things always takes time and effort, and it made me appreciate the effort my manager had made in throwing me a good-bye cake party 4 years ago.

The funniest irony?  My manager of 4 years ago who threw me the cake party, was also the manager of this staffer. So if the staffer had left before the manager, the same manager who organized my cake-party would have probably organized the cake-party and luncheon for this staffer. But she had a left a month ago, so now it was left to me. What goes around comes around, eh?