Saturday, July 18, 2015

Surprises and Random Encounters -- in which I throw in a lot of unrelated photos

When you travel, you expect to be surprised. That's, after all, the whole point of flying fourteen hours half-way around the world, sleeping in unfamiliar beds, taking lukewarm showers, and pounding the pavement in 104-degree heat with no sunscreen. It's a lot of work (and expenses). If all you get is merely what you expected, then you may as well have stayed in the comfort of your home or treated yourself to many nights out at top restaurants and spas in town. Fortunately, that never happens.

Some of the best memories of our trip were not planned at all. For example, we stumbled upon the elaborate changing of the guards ceremony at the royal palace in Madrid. It only happens at noon on the first Wednesday of every month, and we arrived just as the regal pageant got underway. Hundreds of royal guards and horses participated in a carefully choreographed ceremony to the music played by the marching band.

This is not a photo in Italy. This is, however, a roman coliseum in the city of Nimes in southern France. We saw it because our connecting train was cancelled due to a train workers' strike and we had to wait for the next one. Instead of feeling like I lost an hour during transit, I felt like I got handed an extra hour on a roman platter.

Sometimes, there are surprises of a different nature...

which, my children assure me, can be just as thrilling and Instagram-worthy, if not more so... 

like seeing exotic cars all lined up in a row and riding concept cars on Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

While riding the train to Versailles, a musician came onboard and began singing to the handful of passengers in our car. There are, in fact, musicians everywhere in Paris. Many play in the metro tunnels, some with classical instruments, others with more modern or even unconventional contraptions. All lend a pleasant surprise to your coming and going. All invite you to stop, linger, and enjoy the moment--for a few spare coins, which you are in no obligation to give. But we often gave (and gladly!).

Performers in Spain have other talents besides music. This street performer had us baffled as he floated effortlessly above his motorcycle.

Here's a lovely view of the street from our humble apartment in Barcelona, which we had not expected.

And here is the view from our luxury hotel in Madrid, which we had not expected either.

Here we discover that you can buy potato chips wrapped in Barça insignia.

...and Starbucks can take on a palatial façade.

And a fine table setting can be found anywhere!

Of course, a survey of surprises and random delights wouldn't be complete without food. On our trip, Sam discovered that he likes steak tartare. If you have no idea what it is, google it. (It's the stuff Mr. Bean tried to stuff into some lady's handbag at a restaurant.) My all-too-curious husband also enjoyed a delectable dish of lamb brains. Yes, you read that correctly. Incidentally, it was pretty tasty.

On the tamer side of things, we discovered eggplant chips were a wonderful appetizer.

And an octopus tentacle can make a fine entrée. By the way, entrées in Europe are not the main courses as we know them. They are, instead, starters. Surprised? Just to clarify, this tentacle did make a satisfying main course.

Finally, I'll leave you with this mural tucked in an alleyway in Barcelona. Behind every door like this is a fine boutique or a gourmet candy store waiting to be discovered. All it takes is a willingness to wander off the main thoroughfare. You will, mostly likely, lose your way and forget which direction you came from. But then you might be thoroughly happy with what you find instead.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Photoblog: Our European Trip - Part 2

My favorite things in Paris

Without a doubt, my favorite part of visiting Paris is picking up fresh breads every morning at the neighborhood boulangerie and fruit from the corner produce stand--not to mention poking my head in the patisseries beckoning with their varieties of tarts and pastries, the likes of which I have never seen this side of the Atlantic. 

I love strolling along the narrow cobblestone street in the early mornings, on my own, without a camera or guidebook, pretending to be a Parisian and returning to our apartment with arms laden with the morning's conquest, but just enough for one day, because the shops would be open tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that.

Sidewalk cafes. Sure, we have those here, too. But somehow, they do it with style. There are cloth napkins, always, and silverware and wine glasses, and waiters in lovely black-and-white uniforms. And you can't beat the view, whether it's humble, narrow cobblestone streets or boulevards lined with grand hotels and palaces.

Of course, the coffee is always good. Very good.

Oh, and did I mention the red awnings?

Then there's Monet. 

Did you hear the sigh at the end of that sentence? You should, because I finally made it to Musée d'Orsay! How I wish I could live in that museum for a week!

Paris has an amazing skyline from atop just about any edifice. But it was especially poetic to see the city through a clock.

Cruising on the Seine, I realized how easy it was to see Paris the way the impressionists did. It was the water. You don't even need to squint to see the paint strokes that make up this scene.

Or this one.

I've tried to avoid putting up a picture of the Eiffel Tower. (Believe me, it's harder than you think. That huge structure does seem to show up everywhere you look.) But I can't resist the one family photo that proves we were all there--including me! By some unbelievable chance we were all smiling, with our eyes open even, And the tower was perfectly centered behind us! I have the stranger who took this picture to thank.

Here's a travel tip: when you are at a picturesque spot, ask someone if they might want to have a group photo taken. Offer your service, and they will happily reciprocate. Look for someone who has a clunky DSLR camera draped over his/her neck. You'll have a better chance of getting a good picture taken.

I'll close this one post with another picture of food. Who can resist a display like this? With all the amazing goodies they have all over the city, it's a wonder how any Parisian can stay thin. Perhaps the secret is that they are choosey of what they consume. Eat well, in small quantities, and reject everything else not worth eating.

A good rule to live by, at least for me, after all the croissants and tarte tatin and duck confit and chocolates...

Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Photoblog: Our European Trip - Part 1

I'll be really honest. I find most travel photos, including my own, extremely boring. For whatever sentiments or emotions one may experience at the time the pictures are taken, the photos themselves invariably turn out to look just like a bunch of postcards one gets from souvenir stands, with no personality to them.

When I set out on our family vacation this year, I had determined to take photos differently, to give them the unique and artistic spin that truly reflects the unique nature of our trip. Alas! Once I landed on the foreign soil, my tourist instinct kicked into high gear, and all my good intentions evaporated into oblivion.

So why am I posting a photo blog of our travels? Because these days you just don't pick up your stack of prints from Costco and sort them and arrange them in a photo album any more. Still, that desire to re-live your favorite vacation moments remains. I call it the "vacation denouement". It's what you do when all the luggages are unpacked, your souvenir magnets installed in their rightful places on the fridge, your boxes of delectable goodies finally opened and savored, and you are still not ready to leave the state of vacationing.

So indulge me if you will, but I understand if you'd rather not. Here are some of the moments from our trip to Paris, Barcelona, and Madrid, broken into installments.


Vacation is about family. Family jet-lagged and in unfamiliar surroundings. Family getting lost while taking a stroll but ending up in some cool place few tourists go -- partly because it's closed for the day. (But you'll be surprised how many tourists congregate at the Louvre even on the day it's closed.) This is not the Louvre. It is the National Archives. Besides a couple of joggers, we had the whole place to ourselves.

What's a vacation without posing in front of a famous monument with a thousand other people in the background? Well, the thousand other people cease to be the "thousand other people" when you meet a mother and a daughter who hail from a city only a few miles from yours (and the daughter goes to a rival high school from your son's), and a young woman who is working as an au pair in Paris and plans to return to Oklahoma (my husband's alma mater) to study medicine. The world can be small in that way.

By the way, it was Sunday. And we were at church. Technically.

In case you're wondering, this is Notre Dame Cathedral. You know... the famous one Victor Hugo wrote about...

Here's one to prove to you that my tourist instinct was alive and well.

There's nothing like chancing upon a city-wide music festival, where the denizens of the whole city are out having fun, and there is live music in every street corner. Okay, some of these bands aren't very good, but hey, it's free, and it's Paris. So who's complaining?

Those who say that French waiters are snobbish and standoff-ish have never met our waitress at Café des Musées.

A note to you foodies out there, ham* and cantaloupe are a match made in heaven.

* I don't mean the round or rectangular, reconstituted, watery pink stuff you get in the lunchmeat section of Safeway.

And finally....

I will leave you with this.

A bridge loaded with countless locks, each signifying a couple's love and devotion to each other. Now, are you hearing Louis Armstrong's La Vie En Rose yet? If you didn't, I bet you do now.

To be continued...

Monday, December 30, 2013

On Re-Entering the Atmosphere

This is probably the longest stretch of time in which I have not written a word. Leaving for full-time work for the first time in sixteen years (and one that requires a 90-minute commute into downtown) has created no small amount of disturbance in what used to be a laid-back rural family with two kids and two cats, who have never known a day without Mom being around or at least within easy reach. For me, my recurring dream (of returning to work) and nightmare (of not being able to care for my children) have both become reality overnight.

Other people do this all the time. That is what I keep saying to myself. Somehow, most women hold down a job, commute to and from work, and still find time to shop for groceries, feed the family, keep the house clean, sing in the church choir, and maybe even attend the PTA. For me, it was all I could do to curl up on the sofa every night and play a mindless computer game and then roll into bed.

You'll get used to the routine, and things will get easier. That is the other thing I tell myself. The kids will learn to cook, do laundry, and maybe pick up after themselves. The cats will learn to sort themselves out when they fight. Dust will learn to gather in the bin or become invisible. And I will learn to gather all my things--glasses, umbrella, gloves, iPod--before getting off the bus.

You should write some of these new experiences down. I've been wanting to write and finding little time after playing the mindless computer game. Reflection and the effort to be coherent takes too much energy.

Still, we are making progress. I am writing my first blog entry in months. My husband and kids are making dinner. And yes, dust around the house is becoming invisible. I think we'll come through the atmosphere,  make a good splash in the Pacific Ocean, and be okay.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Generation Without a Past

When Chang Kai Shek's troops marched into Beijing, the victorious army finally arrived to repossess the Capital of the North from the Japanese invaders, we the citizens of Beijing thronged the streets, craning our necks, anxious to welcome these heroes of war with flags in our hands. It had been many weeks since the Japanese surrender was announced on the radio, and we all waited--for some momentous event to mark the end of the war and, perhaps even more importantly, for someone or something to signal the start of something new and better.

Then they came. Only it was not what I expected. The troops tramped into the city looking haggard and exhausted, foot soldiers with worn out shoes, tattered and grimy uniforms, gaunt and vacant faces as if they had not eaten for weeks. They did not march as much as trudged through the streets of Beijing. It was an anticlimax after eight years of holding your breath for victory. Chang's bedraggled, ragtag army. I will never forget that sight.

That was 1945, and the sight belonged to my father. But the image is etched in my mind as well. Someone once said, "When an old persons dies, a library has burnt to the ground." I know that to be true. When my father died in 2007, many things were lost besides the one who doted on me ever since I was born. With him went my connection to China, my uncles and cousins whom I'd never met, and a hazy past I can no longer retrieve on my own. You see, he was my connection to history, the history of China, the history of World War II, the rise of Mao, and the start of a new government in Taiwan. His stories are what tie our lives--my life--into the big events that happened, like when you look at the directory and map of a multi-story shopping mall, and there's that little red dot that says, "You are here."

Often we study history through textbooks and encyclopedia, but rarely do we learn what it's like to be a person who lived day-to-day through those turmoils. No history book tells you what Chinese children did for school or ate for lunch under the Japanese occupation. No one reported how sorry the Nationalist soldiers looked when they marched into Beijing under Chang Kai Shek's leadership.

I do not know my grandparents very well. My father's parents died while he was a youngster. My mother's parents spoke a different dialect (Taiwanese) and did not spend much time with us. It has always been my cherished wish that my children should grow up knowing their grandparents. As it turned out, my children never learned to speak Chinese, and my parents, for all the years they've lived in America, have never become fluent in English. And we lived six hundred miles from my parents. My children, like me, are estranged from their heritage, a past that belongs to them, yet entirely unknown. They do not miss it now because children live in the present. But I wonder if they might look back someday and reach for that past: How did I come about? Why am I here? Why am I in Washington and not in Taiwan or Hong Kong or Beijing? (I often joke that if it weren't for Mao, my dad would never have moved to Taiwan, and he would never have met my mom, and then where would I be? So I have Mao to thank for my existence today.)

A couple of years before my dad passed away, I asked him if I could record his stories on video. He had always been a natural-born storyteller, a trait, sadly, I did not inherit. So for two weeks I had a video recorder running in our living room, while my dad told me about his childhood, about his teenage years working in a Japanese auto shop repairing vehicles for the soldiers, about his life as an Air Force officer in the Nationalist military, about how he wooed my mom with barely a yuan under his name, about how he, my mom, and the three of us came to America with suitcases stuffed with all that we possessed and three layers of clothes on us because they couldn't fit in the luggage. I turned these into 3 DVDs and gave them to relatives. I knew, even then, that I wanted to preserve his stories for my children, that I'd someday add subtitles to those videos so my children could watch and understand.

Those DVDs are still sitting in a box. I have not touched them since my father died. After all these years, I still do not feel ready to put those DVDs on.  Sometimes the only way to cope with the loss of someone you love is to put some distance between you and the memories. The less you experience them, the less you feel the sadness--and none of us want sadness. We put those emotions in a box and bury them deep in a vault under lock and key. I thought that someday, when the sadness and the feeling of loss is finally gone, I would open that box and revive the DVDs for my children, perhaps even turn them into a book.

I've been reading "Tuesdays With Morrie" by Mitch Albom. There's a a part where Morrie, a dying old man in his seventies, shed a tear while talking about losing his mother when he was ten. "That was seventy years ago your mother died," asked his interviewer, who happened to be Ted Koppel, "The pain still goes on?" Morrie answered him, "You bet."

That's when I realized you never get over the loss of someone you love. The day will never come when I feel emotionally ready to put the DVDs back on. Morrie also has something to say about emotions, especially negatives ones. Embrace them, recognize them for what they are, and wave goodbye. Don't be afraid of sadness. Experience it and then move on. That's a good advice. Obvious, sensible, but not easy.

I'm working up to it. I want to revive my father's stories for a new generation without a past-- my children, who grow up knowing nothing but peace and plenty. When they stare at the big picture of history, they don't see the "You are here" dot. They find themselves outside of that map--a foreign object filled with lines and symbols and names and numbers that do not mean anything personally. They live their lives without reflection or recollection, because when they turn around, there is nothing to see but a locked door and a sign that says, "Collections burnt down, no borrowing until further notice".

Although much of our heritage is lost to me (and nonexistent to my children), those stories contained in the DVDs are what I rescued from the ashes. And I am the only one who can unlock the content for my children.

Recognize your emotions for what they are, embrace them, and move on.

I'm working up to it.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Remembering How to Write

Nearly a year ago, I decided to dismantle my blog, not because I no longer wished to write, but because I suddenly felt exposed and vulnerable, knowing just how much of my personal life and private thoughts were out there on display.

It had begun as a way to keep myself tethered to my homeland and my friends as I began a trans-Pacific move I thought might be permanent. However, over the next three years, I saw a shift in my readership, from close friends to strangers, from those who continuously gave me feedback to those who lurked in the murky grayness of cyberspace. For a private person like me, it is a very uncomfortable feeling to know--and most of the time not know--just who have been reading my diary of sorts. Yes, my blog had in some sense turned into a diary.

And yet, I feel encouraged at the same time that after a whole year of inactivity,  my blog is still at the top of the google search list for "Helen's Random Thoughts". I am that Helen whose random thoughts gets read by more people than any other Helen's. I know this distinction seems trivial and silly, and it is, but something inside tells me I've abandoned a living thing in the ashes. And it's sad. The ideas, the body of reflections, recollections, and images had a power of its own, and it reached and touched persons in ways I had not imagined. I felt like I had squashed something wild but living, something that had been valued and enjoyed by some.

So, here I go, trying to recapture the muse again. I may or may not succeed. But feel free to comment or lurk. Feeling vulnerable is not altogether the worst, and I'm learning to overcome that.

Saturday, September 29, 2012


I woke up this morning and decided to take down my blog. There are many reasons for this, and I don't wish to go into them. Let's just say that I need to focus my energy somewhere else.

If you are a regular visitor and feel very upset about this, please send me a note through the comment section. I probably won't change my mind, but it sure is nice to know that somebody out there really likes my blog.

If you came by this site through someone's link, leave me a note anyway. I'd love to personally thank those people for linking to my blog.

Thanks for visiting.