Happy Buddha Needs Trousers

We reached Hoi An in the early evening and checked into our riverside hotel.  But before we reached there, our guide stopped in a courtyard with a large open storefront.

“Here we make clothes,” he announced. It goes without saying that the CS (Chief Shopper) was agog at the prospect of a new jacket, though he bemoaned the fact that he’d packed one and not worn it yet. And I must admit that even I felt a little frisson at the prospect of some trousers that actually fit me. That’s what I went in for. I came out having ordered an Armani knockoff trouser suit in heavy black silk. They took about 75 different measurements, some of them in places I never even knew I had measurements.

“You come back tomorrow at noon,” said the charming and efficient sales girl.

And it continued to rain. We didn’t mind though, because we felt we’d done a lot to contribute to the Vietnamese economy, and besides, the sun would come out tomorrow, as the charming redhead Annie would have sung, had she been there. She would have been wrong.

Our guide picked us up the next morning at 9. He had long ago given up trying to get us awake, never mind alert, before 9. Off we drove to the old town , to visit a thousand-year-old pagoda, complete with 9 foot dragon fountain, and Asian tourists clicking away. Almost next door was the famous Japanese covered bridge. I hadn’t realized before that the Japanese, Chinese and Hindu Cham peoples had all made their home in Hoi An over the centuries. The covered bridge was guarded at one end by stone (or possibly marble) lions and the other by similar dogs. A small shrine half way across beckoned us in the smell of incense. The river was slowly rising to meet the bridge…

Our guide took us for coffee before saying goodbye. He was worried about his wife, because Hue was flooding, and he wanted to take the bus home. We asked him what time the bus left. 12 o’clock, he said. It was twenty to.

Before he caught the bus, Nyan insisted on walking us back to the tailor shop. By the time we got there, it was noon, and I was worrying about him missing the bus.

“No problem,” he said, “it will wait.”

We forced him to leave us, eventually, and Jay and I headed upstairs for our fitting. This was a mistake. The trousers I’d ordered fitted so perfectly that I actually looked pretty good. “You take extra pair?” asked my ever helpful sales girl.

“No time, I said, we’re leaving tomorrow morning.

“No problem,” she said, “they’ll be ready by five.”

“In the morning?”

She  seemed to be wondering whether I was a bit slow on the uptake. “No, tonight. And we deliver to your hotel.”

I pondered this, but decided against another pair. I wandered over to the CS, who was trying on his new trousers. They looked great, but CS was scowling.

“They don’t have cuffs,” he said, mournfully. I had an idea. “Why don’t you order another pair, with cuffs, maybe in a different color? I think they can deliver them by tonight.”CS perked up.

What color?” he asked. We settled on a grey/greenish color and I went back to my salesgirl. “I’ll take the other pair of trousers,” I said.

“And a skirt?” She asked.

I nodded. Damn the expense.

It came to $325.

The Mane Chance

And it kept on raining as we drove to Hoi An. Our tour company had suggested we fly there, but I’d heard that the views along the three hour drive were stunning, so we kept our guide and driver, and set off. We were enjoying splashing through the mildly flooded roads, trying not to drown the poor intrepid souls on mopeds and bikes. Soon however, we began to see small landslides of the brilliant red earth that is characteristic of this part of Vietnam. Then we came across a truck that had just failed to slide off the road down a steep ravine, but whose cargo had not been so lucky.
“So, said the guide, “I think we take the tunnel through the mountain, instead of the pass.” Since it was still pouring, we agreed, eventually arriving at Danang – until now just a name from the war called the American War here. Along China Beach, the new Hyatt Danang was opening that very day. Behind high fences that kept the beach out of our site, a Korean construction firm had temporarily suspended work due to the weather. “It will be a hotel and golf course,” said Nyan. Jay perked up at that. He perked down at the next remark.
“They have moved all the bodies,” said the guide, with a fair amount of savoir faire, I thought.
“The what?” said Jay.
“This was a cemetery,” said Nyan, cheerfully, “and the government paid the people to move their ancestors’ bones somewhere else, so the Koreans could build a golf course. We call it the ghost course,” he said, showing off his excellent grasp of the nuances of English.
Seeing Jay’s crestfallen expression, Nyan suggested we stop at a marble factory. I was imagining somewhere where they made the little glass marbles the kids love to play with. It turned out to be an enormous warehouse with Brobdinagian Buddha’s, gigantic modern sculptures and vast menageries of marble animals. I had been contemplating purchasing a modest Buddha to take home, with the thought that it might help me meditate. The first one I saw came up to my shoulder and I felt as though it might try to terrify me into meditating, so I wandered inside to look for something smaller.
I had lost sight of the Chief Shopper for a while, when he suddenly reappeared and, grabbing me by the elbow, said “It’s time we were leaving, darling.” I was astounded. We’d only been there for what seemed like an hour and a half, and I’d decided the nice Buddha’s were too expensive or too heavy. But I was delighted that Jay was showing signs of being sensible. Honestly, I’d thought he might try to buy a couple of Chinese style dogs for the mantelpiece, or some oversize splashing fish for the garden (to compensate for his lack of fishing success). And here we were, leaving.
“Sir, sir, I give for you $2,700 dollar,” piped up a delicate voice from behind my husband. He grinned and winked at me. Turning , he countered with $1,500.
“What are you haggling over?” I hissed at him.
The sales girl was moaning quietly, as Jay led me outside to the marble bestiary lined up in neat rows, interspersed with the occasional woodland nymph, or (remarkably similar) Virgin Mary.
“What do you think of these?” He pointed. Words failed me, as they so often do around Jay. He was pointing at two large lions of threatening aspect.
“Oh, I don’t think we want those,” I said at last.
“Very good, darling,” said Jay. The he continued, in a voice designed for the shop assistant to hear, “My wife doesn’t want these, so I’m afraid…”
“I give for you $2,300 dollar,” said the assistant, doing some rapid calculations on the back of a sales brochure.
“Sorry, no,” said Jay
By this time I was seriously worried. I knew Jay when he got into haggling mode. This was not going to be pretty.
“We don’t have anywhere to put them,” I said, but I was talking to myself.
“How ‘bout Vietnamese lucky number $2000.” She was practically in tears.
“$1800,” countered Jay. The shop assistant scribbled madly.
“Okay.” Her lower lip was trembling. “ $1800.”
“Done,” said Jay. “Shipping included, and a Buddha for my wife.”
I knew there was no point in remonstrating. The shop assistant was smiling as she walked Jay over to a marble table and chairs to sign the paperwork.
I went off to find a small Buddha. I found one, with a nice face and a slightly pained expression, lying down and taking a break. A reclining Buddha. I felt an immediate sympathy with him. Probably his wife had just bought two stone lions.

The Happy Buddha gets wet

They never mentioned the rain. That’s to say, I’m sure someone said the monsoon season would be over by now. But…

We arrived in Hanoi on Friday and transferred to a flight to Hue, about halfway down the coast of Vietnam, where we were met by Nyan, our very fluent guide. It wasn’t raining yet, but as soon as we reached our (very nice) hotel, it started. We could see the swimming pool from our fabulous room, but there was no way of getting to it without getting drenched, and, illogically, that didn’t seem like a great idea.

Within minutes of checking in, Jay had, of course, covered all the surfaces with his stuff, leaving me with my usual bedside table. Only problem was that the bedside table was a small triangular one, with a large bedside lamp on it. That left room for my cell phone. Still, I did not repine since we had fun things to look forward to.

Our guide picked us up for a cyclo ride later in the day. The cyclo is a kind of reverse tricycle, with the pedaling person on the back and the passenger in the front. It reminded me forcibly of being wheeled along in a push-chair as a child. As we started out, the rain had cleared for a bit, but, sure enough, as soon as we were about half a mile down the street, the heavens opened again.  My nanny (sorry, driver) stopped the cyclo to pull the cover over me, leaving a letterbox-shaped opening for me to look out of.  In a way, this was just as well, since the number of cyclists and moped riders that cut across in front of us was impressive, not to say terrifying.

On the bright side, so to speak, the two-wheeled travelers were certainly bright. They all wore plastic ponchos, in a rainbow of colors: orange, fuschia, lime, blueberry, yellow and sky blue. Then there were the polka dotted ones and the checked ones that looked like flying tablecloths. It was relatively rare to see a single rider – most bikes and motor scooters carried two people, with the pillion passengers sometimes riding side-saddle, their stiletto heels demurely tucked to the side. The passengers would try and cover themselves with the same poncho as the driver, which meant they had no way of seeing the road – and maybe that was just as well. The cargo carried by bikes was untrammeled by common sense – baskets full of rather grubby white ducks, vegetables, huge flower arrangements, even a mattress, were attached to bikes and hauled around in the rain.

Happy even when wet

It poured while we visited the remains of the Citadel, a 16th century stronghold bombed almost to the ground during the war. It rained when we visited the 15th century pagoda, where the monks, dressed in saffron and red, were chanting near a huge statue of the happy Buddha – a nickname our guide soon attached, for reasons still not quite clear to me, to Jay. The temple was built of teak and open, as almost all buildings seemed to be, on one side. The altar inside was flanked by two enormous blue and white vases, the height of a man, easily.

It continued to bucket down as six large bowls of snails were carried by the monks down to the river as offerings to the Buddha. I think I may safely say that I’ve never seen as many snails (like English cockles) in one place at one time. I suspect the snails were happier in the rain than the monks

It rained when we took our boat ride on the Perfume River on a dragon boat – one with large painted dragons on the prow. The owners lived on the boat, though they must have slept in the area where they had kindly placed three plastic chairs for us to sit on, since there wasn’t anywhere else. Free enterprise thrives in Hue, and it wasn’t long before the wife produced a pair of silk Chinese style pajamas for me to look at. I shook my head and pointed at the shopper in the family. We came away with five pairs, one for each of our daughters/daughters in law. And a small wooden model of some Vietnamese fishermen…

And it kept on raining.

A Little Corner for Me, Please?

Guess which case is mine?

We’re going traveling next week, and I’m looking forward to it, really I am. My husband and I, and few close friends, plus a few strangers, will be staying at lovely hotels in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and just for good measure, in Hong Kong. In the old days, this might have taken us about 10 days, since we were always trying to squeeze in as much as possible. Now that we have more time (in theory) we can actually hope to see something of the country and the people in each place we visit.

There’s one thing about these hotels, though. I never have enough space to put anything. I expect you’re sympathizing – you understand what it is to have small closets and lots of luggage. That isn’t my problem. My problem is my husband Jay. Within seconds of arriving in any hotel room he has covered every surface with his things. While I am still looking out of the window at the magnificent view, or looking out and moaning about the view of the parking lot, Jay is unpacking his enormous suitcase and spraying the room with his small change, wallet, newspapers, novels, laptop, pens and pill containers. The bathroom of course is never big enough. I can sometimes find a corner in which to stash my make-up bag, but mostly it sits on the toilet cistern. As for the closet, well, if I manage to have a quarter of the hangers for my things, I’m in luck.

He’s not completely thoughtless. I usually have my bedside table to myself, and sometimes I can even manage to squeeze the things from my small carry-on suitcase into one of the drawers under the TV. Why do I travel with such a small suitcase? It’s obvious, isn’t it? I’ve learned over the years to travel light. I have a Kindle, instead of Jay’s six or seven books. I have one pair of shoes in addition to the sneakers which I wear for traveling, compared with Jay’s two spare pairs of shoes. He points out that he’s bigger than me, so his clothes are bigger. A specious argument, I find, since this doesn’t seem to happen with the other couples I know. There, the wife has the huge suitcase, and the husband has the smaller one. Bell-boys and porters always think the larger case is mine. And on the way home, Jay always asks me whether I might have room in my case for some of the things he’s bought while we’re traveling. He’s an inveterate shopper, so I trail along behind him through souks, bazaars and markets, trying unsuccessfully to restrain him. (Other wives are jealous of me that I have a husband who likes to shop – if they only knew…)

And so, when it came to building a house several years ago, the architect turned to me and said, “How big would you like your closet to be?” “Don’t ask me,” I replied, “he’s the one with the clothes…”

We started with two closets, but Jay turned one into a sauna, and now we share the other one. It started out 50/50, but by now, Jay’s hogging 75%, and gaining. My clothes are stored in my suitcase.

Where I write

My internet friend Pauline asked me to tell her where I do my writing. Since I live in my car as I travel between my two houses, one in Connecticut and one in New Hampshire, it was a tough question. But I took a stab at it. Here’s the link:


And when you’ve finished reading my brilliant essay, check out some of Pauline’s terrific writing about her son and the one-foot-in front-of-the-other way that she deals with a mother’s worst fears. And keeps her sense of humor, too.

The Cleaners are Coming

“Why do I have to clean up the house if the cleaners are coming tomorrow?” Honestly, my husband sounds like a recalcitrant teenager.

Well, duh, is what I want to say. But for the thousandth time over the long years of our marriage I try to explain it again.

“Their job is to clean,” I begin.

“Exactly,” he says, triumphantly.

“But if we don’t tidy first, they won’t be able to get at the dirt and they’ll tidy for us.”  I’m trying to make this simple.

“Right,” he says, with the patience of Job (according to him). “I’m always telling you to take it easy. You don’t need to tidy – that’s what we’re paying them for.”

“But if they tidy for us,” I say for the millionth time, “we’ll never be able to find anything.”

I remind him of the time when I lived in Chicago, and Eva, my over-helpful cleaning lady, took all the mail when I was away for a couple of weeks and stuffed it in one of the drawers in the hall table. It wasn’t until I opened the letter beginning: Unless you pay your bill promptly….that I realized what had happened. Eva also used Easy-off oven cleaner on the top of the electric stove, thus rendering it lethal, but that’s another story.

I remind him of the fact that he’s always looking for something – his glasses, it goes without saying, are always somewhere else. Where did he leave his newspaper (bathroom probably…)? How about his calendar (under that pile of papers…)? And where’s his favorite trowel (in the compost heap…)?

Often, of course, I know where his stuff is because I just do. I have a feeling that wives often pay more attention to things that are out of place than most husbands. (Probably said something sexist there. Oh well.) In any case, it’s clear to me that adding extra layers of tidied items to his already straying belongings would simply make it all worse. I glance over at him.

A miracle has occurred. I think I’m beginning to get through to him. He’s shuffling some of the papers on his desk around. He’s tidying!

“Have you seen my cell phone anywhere?” he asks.

“The cleaners tidied it up last week,” I say. Just to make a point. Actually, it’s in his jacket, I think.


A Landfill Waiting to Happen

You’d think it would be easy. The plastic, glass and cans go in there, and the newspaper, card and junk mail goes there. The men I live with have a dozen (more or less) university degrees between them. And yet, when it comes to recycling, it’s harder to get them to do it right than it would be to put socks on an octopus.

Let’s take my husband. Please. I can’t deny he’s getting a bit better, but it’s taken me at least ten years to explain that cardboard you can bend (like cereal packets) is, for the purposes of recycling, paper. He still takes the card to the dump inside a corrugated cardboard box, where he proffers it proudly to the tired man who’s given up trying to explain.

Please don't squeeze...

As for plastic – when the town started recycling, it would only take plastics 1 & 2, but it seemed to be beyond my husband to find the symbol on the container. I tried to make it easier for him by explaining that it meant clear plastic like milk containers and water bottles, and colored containers from dishwashing liquids and other household cleaning products. After a while, I gave up and started weeding out the yogurt pots, the paper milk cartons, Styrofoam coffee cups and used flowerpots, and putting them in the trash.

As for washing things before recycling – it seems a concept that’s completely alien to my men. Not only do they not wash their soda bottles, but they twist the bottle caps on so tightly that I can’t open them to wash out the bottles myself. Aaargh!

A few months ago, the town started recycling almost everything, telling us that we could put all the paper together and all the plastic, glass and cans in a separate container. You might be thinking that this surely made it all easier – but I’m afraid that the only difference is that I’m now retrieving all the yogurt pots, Styrofoam cups, and  flowerpots from the trash, washing them, and recycling them myself. As for milk cartons, the middles of toilet rolls and paper towels, egg boxes and the like, my men just can’t seem to grasp that they are made from paper of differing thicknesses. Paper bags covered in grease from the Chinese take-out, on the other hand, are squashed into a ball and lobbed at the recycling bin.

Last week, the Good Men Project, http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/is-recycling-for-girly-men-naaaah/, an online men’s magazine that I write for, ran an article intimating (the way I read it) that women were much more likely to recycle than men. I don’t think that my guys assume  recycling is a woman’s job. But I do think they don’t seem to understand the value of it, even though our town dump tells us how much money they’re making by recycling. It’s on a huge sign that gets updated regularly as you drive in.

A landfill waiting to happen

Maybe it’s because my husband doesn’t quite believe in global warming.  “We had more snow than ever last winter,” he says, and of course, our tiny part of the world is the entire globe to him, so it must be getting colder. My sons believe in global warming, but don’t care enough about the planet – they’re already planning to colonize Mars. All I can hope is that they end up with women who do care – or Mars will be a landfill before they know it.

Ice cream snob, on a waffle cone, please

He used to be quite happy with Baskin Robbins, when I first met him. Now my husband is an ice cream snob.

It never occurred to me to wonder about this, until the other day, when I suggested going for an ice cream somewhere nearby, and Jay demurred, saying the only ice cream worth having was the one either 11 or 20 miles away. When did this fussiness begin? I’m thinking back to when I first arrived in America. It became very clear to me almost immediately that American cuisine had introduced three great things to the world – hamburgers, really interesting salads, and ice cream. Oh, we had ice cream in England, too, but it came wrapped in individual portions, either as vanilla ice cream bars (covered with chocolate) or in small paper cups, with a little wooden spade to eat it with.

So when I arrived in the US and was taken by my husband to a Baskin Robbins (32 flavors) I was astonished and delighted. I made it a goal to try all the flavors which might be worth eating. Mint chocolate chip? How sophisticated. Nutty coconut? An inspired recipe. Butter pecan? It contained those nuts I’d only heard about back in England. And then Jamoca, my true love.  My husband, on the other hand, stuck to the only flavor he really liked – Pralines ‘n’ Cream. In the large size.

Soon however, the siren song of Haagen Dazs was heard throughout the land. Their ice cream was better, richer and more imaginative, said Jay. He was never going back to Baskin Robbins.  Vanilla Swiss Almond, Amaretto Almond Crunch and Rum Raisin were fine for me. But my husband found his true love and stuck to it. At first it was Macadamia Nut ice cream, and then they introduced Macadamia Brittle, the King of ice creams, according to Jay. There was one drawback. If we arrived at a Haagen Dazs shop or a supermarket where they didn’t stock one of those macadamia flavors, language ensued. And it was becoming clear, as the years went by, that macadamia nut ice creams were becoming harder to find – something to do with the macadamia crop in Hawaii becoming too expensive. But Jay was not despondent for too long.

We bought a little House in New Hampshire, and the local ice cream there, was, of course, Ben & Jerry’s. I approved of this ice cream, made by a couple of hippies who were obviously stoned when they came up with flavors like Cherry Garcia, Wavy Gravy and Phish Food. Jay was happy again – even when they retired one flavor, there was always another coming along the conveyor belt. So Southern Pecan Pie was followed by Rainforest Crunch and then Karamel Sutra. For me it was always Coffee Heath Bar Crunch, even though they had to call it Coffee Toffee Crunch for a while (for legal reasons, I think).

Then tragedy struck. The little ice cream parlor in our town stopped serving Ben & Jerry’s. They still sold ice cream, but it just didn’t have the oomph that Jay needed. Until last summer. Suddenly, he discovered the Walpole Creamery and their Caramel Cashew Chip. We were driving along in the middle of farm country after picking blueberries nearby, and suddenly Jay swerved off the road. He’d seen a sign, he said. I thought maybe he’d had some sort of epiphany, but the sign turned out to be a modest cutout of an ice cream cone. “We deserve a reward for picking all those blueberries,” he said. And he’s been going back ever since. (The blueberries have long since stopped being an excuse.)

“This is, hands down, the best ice cream ever,” he announced recently, with the air of a man who would never stoop so low as Ben & Jerry’s again. I sometimes wonder, rather uncharitably, whether the fact that their small cone appears to contain  7 scoops of ice cream has something to do with Jay’s devotion…

Being a bit older now and, he assures me, much wiser, Jay now has a backup plan in the event that the Walpole creamery ice cream is not available. Only 20 miles away, he knows a little spot called the Scoop, where he swears the ice cream is the best ever.

I, on the other hand, don’t worry about finding the perfect ice cream for myself. Jay may mock, but dear old Haagen Dazs has finally produced a coffee ice cream which comes in small paper cups, with a little plastic spoon to eat it with. That’s what I love about ice cream – some things never change.

Red Sox, Brown Armchair

We went to the Red Sox Game last night. Nothing unusual about that, you might think. But in fact, this is something we do only once a year, when one of our lovely daughters and her partner buy tickets for my husband Jay’s birthday present. In a way, this is a backhanded gift, since they are avid Red Sox fans and have even indoctrinated their poor misguided 6 year-old son. And they know that Jay is a rabid Yankee fan. With the Yankees current record, we were going to drive two hours to be humiliated.

So it was with some trepidation that I got into the truck in New Hampshire for the trip to Boston. Truck, you ask? This is Jay’s red pickup truck, with the number plate MY TOY. (They allow this sort of foolishness in New Hampshire, where we legally reside.)  Our youngest son had texted just that morning, wondering whether we still had the Pier One sofa (circa 1991) that had been languishing in the basement. If so, he pleaded, could he possibly have it for his new student apartment at BU? I saw a chance to kill two birds with one stone. If the Yankees were to be ignominiously slaughtered in the Fenway amphitheatre, at least one positive thing would come out of it – Son would be comfortable.

I found the sofa in the basement, and even a matching armchair. No problem to get them up to ground level and into the truck. They were made of foam and some sort of balsa wood and weighed less than a bag of mulch… I suggested that maybe it would be a good idea to strap the furniture down, but this was met with a firm “No” from Jay, who was sure that nothing could budge these objects. (Jay failed physics in High School, I suspect.) And off we went.

We were 20 miles down I-89 when Jay asked me to look and see whether the armchair was still on board. I turned round and giggled. I am not by nature a giggler, and this was by way of a nervous reaction.

“Nope,” I said, “it’s gone.” Jay smiled indulgently. He thought I was kidding. “No, really,” I repeated. Language ensued.

Jay made an illegal U-turn and started back up the highway. “Keep an eye out for it,” he said.

New Hampshire being a rural state, there were forests between us and the opposite lanes, and the armchair was brown, so I knew there’d be no hope of seeing it. But I shut up and kept an eye out as directed. It seemed the armchair had decided to Live Free or Die. It was Jay who decided we should go back to the beginning of our trip, and it turned out he was right. (This happens sometimes…) About half a mile from where we’d joined the highway was our armchair, sitting sedately by the side of the road, its cushion next to it, and one of its feet lurking nearby. It was the work of moments (more or less) to tie the thing down, although we were hampered somewhat by having no idea of how to work the ratchet thingies on the straps and in the end resorted to the scouting knots of our youth. In the event, it took another two and a half hours to reach Boston, and we ditched the truck outside Fenway stadium, having contacted Son to come and drive it to his flat.

And then came the game. It took three hours and forty minutes before I could persuade Jay to leave, and we hadn’t even got to the top of the eighth (I believe that’s the expression – second half of the eighth inning, right? For foreign readers, eighth out of nine) He didn’t want to leave because the Yankees – unbelievably – were winning. Jay, of course, immediately claimed credit. On the way home he was planning our trip to the next Yankees game, wherever it is. Because, he says, they obviously can’t win without him. This could become very expensive, even if I don’t go with him. I’d rather deliver armchairs.