July 2012

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The Eiffel Tower

Photo by Katie Botkin.

A Letter from Katie Botkin in France:

Antoine, the youngest of the Mazos, has given me an unexpected birthday present: a beautiful little pendant that looks like a large pearl or a small, pristinely white Fabergé egg. I put it around my neck and feel the smoothness of it with my fingertips. I thank Antoine, but I wonder if he knows how much I like it. Somehow, oddly, it reminds me of the bracelet I got from all the teachers at the Lycee in Rouen when I left their ranks years before. But perhaps not so oddly, because both pieces of jewelry were handcrafted in Rouen. Christine, Antoine’s mother and my favorite fellow teacher, was sure to tell me that it was local, just as Antoine tells me now that this necklace is local.

Back in 2005, when my contract ran out and I left Rouen to see Italy and Ireland, I threw most of my clothes in the charity bin by a supermarket hidden in the labyrinth of the Norman streets. I hadn’t brought or bought much of value. But I was proud of that silver bracelet around my wrist, serpentine leaves with centers of blue crystal; not sapphire but just as hot in the light. I hadn’t liked the bracelet at first, honestly, but, overwhelmed at the generosity of my colleagues, I had put it on and kissed all of them as was the custom, even the dour principal with sagging jowls.

I wore it to Italy. In Pisa, I sat in a green field, contemplating the tower alone, playing with the facets of my bracelet. At one angle the reflected light shone straight up green into the green of my eye, taking up the total of my vision. In Florence I slept with the bracelet clasped around my wrist in a stranger’s apartment. I trusted the stranger, who lived near Seattle normally, recognizing her as the sort of girl who wanted to have adventures to tell upon her return, like, yeah, there was this one time I met this chick outside the train station and I was like, yeah, you can stay with me ‘cause we Americans need to stick together. I assume she thought I was OK because I didn’t look like a beggar.

But the only barrier between myself and those beggars bowing on the pavement was the weight pressing me downward, the bite of my luggage, the euros around my neck, and my paltry gentility. I had no idea which city to live in after I got back to the States, no home, no job; I really and truly was homeless and jobless just like those beggars, however temporarily. But I shrugged and took the train to Rome, talking on the way with a parachutist from Sardinia, who tried to teach me Italian and then left forever with a tip of his cap.

On the plane to Dublin the light came in the window and sent back prism shards

onto the plastic wall, some blue-cold, some separated sharply into red yellow purple.

We flew over Normandy into the sunset. In Dublin, I hopped on a bus to my hostel,

debarked, and took a shower. I looked in the mirror to see my wrist and it was naked.

I felt naked all that day, and the thought that kept coming back to me was: what is the point of seeing things if you have no way to keep them?

So when Antoine gives me the necklace, I think, secretly, this can replace the thing I lost before. On this trip, I’ve gone in exactly the reverse of that other trip: Ireland, Italy, Normandy, and here I am with something to remember my time in Normandy again. It’s a pleasing thought.

I take the train to Paris wearing this necklace, check in to my hotel, and meet up with friends from the Netherlands. We all go to dinner, where I can’t help running my fingers over the smoothness of the white pendent in between courses, just to make sure it’s still there. Then we decide we’re going to take the metro to La Defense not far away. We hop on the metro, hang on the rails, chatting and catching up, and I look in the window to see my throat. It is naked. I put my hand up, startled.

I go back to my hotel room, which has a stunning view of the Eiffel tower, but I am too irritated to pay much attention to that. I ransack my room in case I have lost my mind and the necklace is actually in my luggage somewhere. But it’s not. Just as before, I have no idea if the jewelry was lost or stolen.

I sit down on the bed and wonder if I should cry. I am just as I was before, that girl who felt suddenly as if her only physical link to history and nobility had disappeared. And I have to remind myself that things have changed slightly — I have a job, I have a house, I have a posh hotel room to sleep in rather than a $12 hostel, and yes, I even have more jewelry. I take a photo of the Eiffel tower to appease myself. This, too, can be a souvenir.

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“So what’s fun to do on Friday nights in Richmond?” I ask Laura. “I mean, other than eating.”

“Karaoke,” she says. “Want to go? It’s huge here.”

She’s right. There are like a dozen karaoke spots, including one a block or so from my hotel, Millennium, which has 13 private rooms and over 40,000 songs.

“If we go, we have to do a Lost in Translation thing,” I tell her.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m Bill Murray and you have to wear a pink wig and be Scarlett Johansson.”

“I love that movie!” Laura says. “What do you think he whispered to her at the end?”

“I’ll see you in L.A.”

Laura laughs. “In that case I’d better not be Scarlett Johansson. I don’t think The Tug Boat Captain would approve.”

I nod. “Maybe you could just wear the pink wig. And I won’t whisper in your ear.”

“Hmmmm….” says Laura. “Let me think about that.”

Now I’m not sure if I hope she still wants to go to a karaoke bar or not. I would like to see her in a pink wig.

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Wu Fung Dessert in the Aberdeen Centre, Richmond BC. Photo by David Lansing.

Here’s what I’ve learned about Mijune: If she suggests you go somewhere to eat, just go. Even if it doesn’t sound like your thing (think chicken feet or frappé).

Today she says, “I have a craving for Wu Fung.”

“What’s Wu Fung?” I ask.

“Deep-fried chicken wings.”

Okay, again: I don’t do chicken wings and I never do deep-fried fast-food. “Chicken wings?” I say. “Seriously?”

Mijune doesn’t even listen to me anymore. Just as well.

But before we bite into our chicken wings, I have a question to ask: What is it with Asian places giving fanciful names to eateries that have nothing to do with what they serve?

For instance: Yesterday Mijune and I were walking around getting all hot and thirsty so we stopped at a place called the Cherry Juice Company. And guess what? They don’t serve cherry juice.

Wu Fung, as you can see from the picture, is actually called Wu Fung Dessert. Would it shock you to discover they don’t sell any desserts (unless you consider soy sauce hard-boiled eggs to be a dessert)?

Somebody please write and tell me why they do this.

Anyway, back to Wu Fung. Once again, Mijune was right. These puppies are meaty and flavorful, the crust crisp but also kind of puffy, sort of like a fish & chips batter, with a slight taste of ginger in it. A little oily (get them out of the Styrofoam container they’re served in as soon as possible) but positively delectable. They reminded me of some Hong Kong street food I had once.

Oh, and get the lemon tea. It’s just as good as the chicken wings and the perfect accompaniment.

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Pierre’s boat

Sailboats in Normandy

Photo by Katie Botkin.

Pierre’s pride and joy is Motus, his sailboat, which he insists on showing me on the way to the coast. He tells me we’ll have our after-lunch coffee aboard. He shows me the shiny wooden interiors, the three sleeping cabins, the dining area, how the toilet works, the navigation equipment. We sit below deck and have strong percolated coffee with sugar and he tells me about his sailing trips, how people work together in such a small space over weeks on end. How it is being on the sea through the night and through the day. Everyone has a job, he says; if you’re bad at navigation, maybe you do the dishes all the time. He tells me I need to come sail the Mediterranean with them sometime soon. I nod seriously. The thought that comes unbidden to my mind is: I’m not sure how much sunscreen I’d have to use to make that work.

As we pull away in the car, he notices that I’m quiet. He asks me if this is my thing or if he’s actually boring me. “C’est que je suis en train de reflichir,” I say. I’m just thinking that I’d really like to do it — sail around for a week or so in remote corners of the Mediterranean, sleeping in those narrow cabins, and navigating above deck in the wind and the salt spray. Not this summer, but maybe next summer. It’s something to plan for.

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Bliss in the form of a Frappé

Mijune shoots our frappe bliss before we devour it. Photo by David Lansing.

I don’t do dessert. I just don’t. So when Mijune suggested that after we finished our chicken feet at Fisherman’s Terrace we head up to the food court in the Abderdeen Centre for some Taiwanese-style shaved ice, I told her to go on ahead.

“You should try it.”

“First of all, I can’t eat another thing. And secondly, the last thing I want right now is shaved ice. I hate shaved ice.”

“It’s not really shaved ice,” she said, grabbing my arm and dragging me towards the escalator. “It’s frappé.”

Whoopy do.

I haven’t known Mijune long but obviously what Mijune wants, Mijune gets. She was going to drag me kicking and screaming like a two-year-old to the food court.

So the Taiwanese-style shaved ice place is called Frappé Bliss. Mijune says in Taiwan it’s called xue hua bing, which means “snowflake ice.”

“But it’s not really ice,” she says as she barks out instructions to some kid behind the counter for what she wants. “It’s actually frozen milk.”

Like that makes it sound any better.

Anyway, Mijune orders a big bowl of green tea frappe with fresh mango, kiwi, and strawberry and a scoop of ice cream on the top. Then, after we get it, she whips out her cell phone and starts taking photos. While the whole thing melts. Which is just fine with me since I’m not going to have any of it anyway. Finally, she dips a plastic spoon in to the bowl and takes a tiny little bite.

“Oh-my-god,” she murmurs. She looks up at me but I ignore her. She plays with the spoon in her mouth, as if she’s licking off every last drop. “Oh, David,” she moans. People are looking at her. It’s like that scene in the diner in When Harry Met Sally—she’s having an orgasm at the Aberdeen food court.

“Fine,” I say, grabbing a spoon. “I’ll take a bite. Just stop moaning.”

The frappé is ethereal. Remember when you were a kid and the first snow of winter would fall and you’d go outside and lift your head up to the sky and catch a single solitary light-as-air snowflake on your tongue and it would instantaneously melt and make you giggle?

That’s what this dessert tastes like. Silky, fluffy, feathery snow. With flavor.

“Stop eating all the frappé,” I tell Mijune, pushing her plastic spoon out of the way. She smiles. “Should I get another?”

“If you want any you should,” I tell her.

And off she goes to Frappé Bliss. While I close my eyes and spoon into my mouth each delightful bite of the green tea-flavored feathery frozen milk delight.

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