Tuesday, December 23, 2008


It's eight days since I walked back in the front door here in Toronto, to a warm house and Jeff and Dom and Tashi and Ian, as well as a young visitor from Germany named Vanessa.  Vanessa was here for a visit, her first time in Canada, never imagining that she'd be here for the coldest snowiest December ever (or at least that's how it seems).  When we drove her to the airport today, she said to us on parting that she'd be back only in the summer - "if there really IS summer here!" was her parting shot.

The sun IS coming back, we said feebly.  Solstice is a time for hope, right?!?

The Burma proposal is coming together.  It feels so important to be doing it, for many reasons. And in the course of doing research for the proposal, we've realised how right it is from a food point of view.  Burma is such a crossroads, with influences from Thailand, Yunnan, and the Indian subcontinent on the various local cuisines.  It's ideal for us, for we're pretty well-grounded in the surrounding culinary cultures.  Burma is like the keystone, the place in the middle where our other books come together in a fascinating overlapping way.  So I think we're going to be able to navigate happily in the colorful patchwork that is Burma's culinary heritage, and to celebrate its richness.  I can't wait.

Meantime, since getting to Toronto we've had a rather heady bunch of encounters and emails and conversations, many of them because of Jane Kramer's piece in the New Yorker.  Among them was a one-hour radio interview, a live phone-in, on NPR, that ranks as one of the two or three best and most satisfying radio interviews we've ever done, separately or together.  We were on  show called On Point, last Thursday, the 18th, for the show's second hour (11 to noon Eastern).  It's out of Boston, and is available in pod-cast.  The host, Tom, was so skilled, and so at ease in the larger Asian world (he worked as a journalist all over Asia for a long time), that the transitions and conversations felt effortless and beautifully connected.  We all had fun, including the many callers. We're now going to make a habit of catching his broadcasts online.  When radio is good, it is so wonderful...

Another recent fun event was the solstice party we went to on the 21st.  We both love that feeling of swimming into a party where we know few of the guests.  It's a little like a treasure hunt.  This party was especially fun and engaging, with a great mix of people who were prepared to engage in fun conversation.  We even got in some dancing!

And the weather?  Well that's less hot - deep crunchy squeaky snow everywhere, and slush at the sides of the main streets.  Yikes!  Haven't had a white Christmas for awhile in Toronto, so I suppose we're overdue, but this year is a shocker.

Then in mid-January I'm due to head back over the pole to Chiang Mai.  I'll miss Dom and Tashi and Ian, but I so love the immersion in language, the chance to embark on the unknown.  And it's time to move to the next (less domestic) phase of life, to be out and about, with my eyes wide open.  Our eight-day immersethrough food cooking class starts February 1, and then by mid-February I hope I am in Sittwe, on Burma's west coast, hanging around...   

All suggestions welcome!

Saturday, December 13, 2008


It's a golden late-Saturday afternoon in Chiang Mai, the light of the setting sun catching the gold tips of the chedis and warming the faces of people heading west on foot, on motorcycles, in the back of tuk-tuks. Had another great market morning, first to meet a friend for breakfast at Talat Somphet, by the moat (we had sticky rice; and pork pounded with lemongrass then wrapped in banana leaf and grilled; som tam (green papaya salad, hot and succulent and crispy); pork and beef "jerky", which is first rubbed with spices, then air-dried, then quickly deep-fried; some tiny fried fishes... all with extra raw veggies, all yum!), and then to Warorot Market to shop for this and that to take back to Toronto.

Yes, it's time to leave (Monday the 15th), or at least that's what my e-ticket tells me. There's the 7 am flight to Bangkok, then the flight to HongKong, and finally the long extraordinary arc of the Air Canada direct flight from Hong Kong to Toronto. I expect the plane will be packed, since the holidays are coming. And all of us in that plane will be flying up over Siberia and then the north pole, and back down over icy wastes to the relative warmth of southern Ontario. Still, "relative" is the operative word. A guy today asked me if any rice grows in Canada and I had to admit to its impossibility(!!!) (wild rice doesn't count).

I went out the other evening to several bars, with a friend. The bar scene here is full of young women (almost all from poor rural homes, usually in Northeast Thailand - Issaan) in search of a living. And "a living" usually means sex with a foreign guy, often an older and not-that-great-a-guy foreign guy. The goal is to get him committed to a long-term relationship. There's apparently a how-to list for the women: hold his hand and be physically close right away, etc etc. (When I get hold of a copy of the list, if ever, I will pass it on.) Looking around, I was seeing guys feeling great because they were being attended to solicitously, their jokes laughed at, etc. And for the women? Well it must be long and tedious, this life, and dangerous too of course. They mask their feelings a lot, their sadness, their neediness, playing at making everything feel fun. And the guys seem to lap it up.

One of the bars I was at is in a katooey area, (katooey are transvestites; one of the charms of Thailand is the open acceptance of katooey as part of life). Many katooey cross-dress, very fashionably and elegantly, and that's as far as they go, but some are now having surgery to make breasts for themselves, perfect breasts. There were some on show the other night, lifeless trophies is how they looked to me (framed on top by a beautiful heavily made-up face and below by a narrow waist and hips and long legs in high high heels). But of course I'm not the target audience. The surgery costs a lot, and the decision to have it must surely push them to engage fully in the sex business: the struggle to get a guy with money, preferably a foreigner, and then keep him, with all the attendant pressures and stresses.

Economic inequality fosters a lot of this open search for a sugar daddy. It's brutal. And it goes on, so it seems to me important to just keep reminding myself of this, as of other uncomfortable facts of life out in the world. Hope you agree.

And on a selfish note, I hope to get out one more time, tonight, to hear blues and jazz at the Brasserie, just across the river. (The bar is great because it is NOT a place of sexual commerce, at least not in a way I have noticed, but a place for engaging with music and having that kind of fun.) Time enough tomorrow for packing presents and camera and computer, giving the plants a last watering (Fern will mind them while we're gone), and friends a last greeting...

And then home to my lovely guys for awhile.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


Jeff and I have been having a lovely time here in Chiang Mai.  The airports were closed for more than a week, so there was no possibility of making travel plans, which has kept us here and focussed on the day to day.  Turns out that's a rare treat.  Now that the immediate political crisis has passed, life seems to be returnng to normal, and people are feeling less worried, short-term at least. 

Jeff has started work on his second novel and is happy happy to be embarked.  I am working on my Thai, trying to get completely familiar with the alphabet (I now sound out street signs and labels, just like a seven or eight year old learning to read), and it is coming.  Have started doing some shared language lessons with Fern and another friend, Hoa.  They keep me in line, making sure my Thai pronunciation is on target.  Having the alphabet (Thai is a very phonetically written language once you penetrate the intricacies of the tone marks and letter combinations) really helps me understand too.  Fern wants to polish her (already good) English and to get her French stronger and Hoa, who understands a lot of English, wants to get comfortable speaking.  It feels lucky to have collaborators who are so nice, and also fun, so the time flies and it doesn't feel like work.

Had a good time the other day on my own at Gat Luang, the old market near us, buying sticky rice baskets and assorted other things for the cooking classes.  Can't wait to take people there for both food and equipment shopping.  Some of the traditional equipment, baskets and ladles, etc, is so beautiful.

One of the big highs of the past week and more has been two evenings of live music.  The first was with Jeff and Fern, at the Brasserie, a bar and restaurant across the river where nightly after 11 the owner, a phenomenal blues and jazz guitarist with an enticing voice, plays with a small group of musicians.  We danced and danced as they played and played... it was so intimate and so trance-y somehow.  A real treat.  Then a couple of nights ago we went with three friends to a Thai country music place out of town, a huge hall filled with tabels and chairs, and by 10.30 with people too.  At one end was the band on a high stage, brass and guitars and percussion, and always a singer (they took turns) in front, singing words that everyone knows, it seems.  The dancing was fun, long and fun, and with the two women singers in particular, every once in awhile, even with the crowd and the complexities and constraints of dancing by our table, it was possible to hit the lost-in-dancing place.  Lovely!