Happy Birthday, Mom!

Just a shout-out to my mom who’s celebrating her 60th birthday today. No matter when we’re away, we always miss someone’s special occasion. This time it’s Mom’s birthday. Next will be my sister’s. But we’ll bring back gifts! Not sure that makes them feel much better, but know that we’d be there if we could.

Kitchenware–Vietnamese style

So certain niceties of life in America are missing here. One that’s come into clear focus here is the absence of kitchen tools. There are no mixing bowls; I use an empty saucepan. No measuring spoons, only a large spoon that I guess by. No one-cup or half-cup measure; instead I use a glass cup that looks like it might be about the same on one cup. We had no grater until yesterday when I found a handmade version at the market. Obviously made by hammering a nail into a piece of metal at an angle, then attaching that to a couple of sticks, it’s a primitive version of the one I have at home. But after trying to make hashbrowns last week by slicing into the potato then using the peeler/knife/bottle opener to make thin slices resembling grated potato… Well, I knew it was something I needed. The holes are a bit small, but I am hoping to be able to expand them a bit with the tip of the knife. The same knife I use to make holes in cans since I don’t have a can opener either. See, it really is the basics that you never even consider as luxuries. Those are the things I wish I had. A spatula. A can opener. Or one of the three blenders we have back at the house in Oregon. I sure will appreciate them when we return.

This is a photo of our kitchen now, complete with granite countertops, a shelf for dishes and another two shelves for food stuff. The sink is tiny, but it’s a real sink for washing dishes and includes a filter for the drain and a drying area to the right. Granted, the faucet isn’t firmly attached and swivels in every direction. But it’s so much better than what we had before.

Look at that lovely counter space! And a real sink!

No Look Monkey

Last Thursday, a monkey tried to attack me.

Unfortunately these didn’t taste any better than they look.

One of my evening students, Nam, and his wife took the kids and I out for a delicious meal of bun cha and then over to an enormous coffee shop/resort that is tucked away behind the city. The expansive grounds are covered with umbrella-covered tables interspersed with play structures, primarily metal swings in the animal shapes.

We meandered through and around to the other side of the building where an empty stage sat waiting a performer. Music blared from worn speakers, distorted. Nam asked if we’d like to sit up on the hill, a slight berm that overlooked the area and we jumped at the chance. The path was strung with Christmas lights, as were the slight trees that dotted the hill. We followed it up and each grabbed a swing.

There were eight of them up there—metal swings meant for two—perched above the crowd of empty tables. On a Friday night, I bet this is a hot spot to take your date.

We enjoyed the view of both the café and, behind us, the city park where locals were taking an evening stroll. Stuart and I had both ordered orange juice, though they were quite different when they arrived. My guess is that one was orange juice and the other was an orange lassi (made with yogurt).

dark night + flash = blurry pic (sorry!)

It was strawberry, chocolate and taro ice cream for Audrey, melting down the side of the dish before it even arrived at our table. She enjoyed the accompanying miniature umbrella more than most would, but it entertained our hosts, as well.

Mr. Nam had said there was a monkey and since we hadn’t seen once since our time in Tam Ky two years ago, we wanted to check it out before we left. Sure enough, tied to the tree by the motorbike parking was a sad little monkey. And then Stuart noticed the other one. Tied to another tree twenty feet away, another monkey sat, then stood, then paced. Not quite as depressing as the first, I went to take a photo of it. But it moved and the zoomed in shot only caught his tail end. Time to try again.

He wouldn't even look at me.
He wouldn’t even look at me.

So I squatted at the edge of the sidewalk and zoomed in again, determined to get a better shot of the animal. And in the matter of a second the thing was lunging at me. I jumped back faster than I have moved in a long time, heart racing, the monkey halted only by the length of his chain. It sauntered back toward the tree and we left without another pause. If I don’t see another monkey for another two years, it’s fine. I’ve seen it closer than I ever wanted to.

Hi-ho Hi-ho, off to work I go

There’s nothing like a lot of work to keep you from being social, whether it’s stateside or abroad. And while my social life these days consists mostly of spending time with my kids and posting on this blog, both have been neglected the past few days.

Due to the national exams this week, the company was not able to find a Vietnamese national to teach the Reading and Writing segments of the course and asked me if I’d take it over for one of the classes. Usually I teach two different groups of students both the Listening and Speaking segments, but since I need the money, I agreed to take over the subjects for both classes. So instead of the regular 7-9 a.m., then 1:30-3:30 p.m. classes, I am teaching from 7-11 a.m., then 1:30-5:30 p.m. And then on Monday and Wednesday, I teach a community English class from 7-9 p.m. Needless to say, I’m a bit tired. 8-10 hours a day in front of a classroom full of students wears you out, in addition to the prep time that is required for each class. The kids have hardly seen me, but next Thursday I’ll end the 44-hour work week and go back to 20. Thank goodness.

Last night a few students came over to watch “Jumper” and eat popcorn with us. What a great snack! I found it in Hanoi and bought two bags of popcorn kernels. We also managed to find bacon, grated cheddar cheese, baking soda, real butter, a few spices (cumin, oregano and “Italian seasoning”), dried chickpeas and rice flour.  Of course, it cost as much, or more, than it would have in the States, but it’s nice to have a few things that will help make food more palatable for Audrey because despite her expressed intention to eat three square meals a day here, it’s turning into an issue again. At this point, I’ll do whatever and spend whatever to make sure she gets enough calories.

Despite my own best intentions, I haven’t managed to get as much writing done as I’d planned, though I have managed to get a few pages written over the past week and did some editing the week before. It just requires a lot of time and a lot of focus, something I haven’t had as much as I had hoped. Although, I must admit, it’s been helpful to be here when writing. The sounds and the smells had diminished in my memories and to be back makes it all clear again. I guess what I’m saying is that even though I’d planned to be done by now, it’s kinda good that I didn’t finish. There’s still so very much to be written.

Free Time

It’s all the kids have these days–hours and hours to do as they please. Of course, this often resorts to playing video games, but not always. On Saturday evening, Audrey and I went swimming with some students (past and present) while Stuart rested. He’s had a cold for the past few days. I managed to press through the embarrassment of a bathing suit, just for my daughter’s sake, and enjoyed swimming in the cool evening for a couple of hours.

The past two days have been only in the low 80s, much cooler than the past week. It began heating (and humidifying) again last night, so I’m expecting another hot one today.

——

For a project that Audrey is working on, we needed plain, unlined paper. There are a few shops at the market that sell school supplies, so we decided to check there first (rather than take the taxi to the supermarket). Sure enough, four stalls in a woman had an open pack of A4 paper. “Bao nhieu?” Out came a string of words and I caught the 10,000VND part, but something came after it. Six.. something, it sounded like. She repeated it and I though perhaps it’s 10,000VND for six pieces of paper, though it sounded like a ridiculously low number. Then along comes a Hong Duc student to help me out. Yep, 10,000VND, but for 60 pieces, not six. So I handed her the money and we waited patiently for her to count out exactly 60 pieces of unlined paper and wrap them in plastic for us.

——

Anyone know how to use fresh turmeric? I couldn’t seem to get the shopkeeper to understand that I wanted dried turmeric and she threw the fresh root into my bag. I haven’t a clue how to use it and have had little luck hunting online.

Really, I must buy some more spices when I get paid and head back to Hanoi.

Teaching as a family affair

Hong Duc University in Thanh Hoa, Viet Nam

Thursday was test day for the students. In the big picture, it’s actually a test for me–a way to have a control against which they will compare the students at the end of my teaching term.

So I found a test in a book that I’ve yet to use here (in hopes of avoiding them knowing anything about it) and proceeded with listening and speaking tests.  The listening portion started off the test period with two student conversations, followed by two lectures (on human adaptation and Impressionism).

They proved to be fairly difficult with a woman speaker whose lilt and breathy voice made her a challenge to understand for many of the students. But they managed to get through it and onto the speaking portion of the test. And that’s where my kids came in to make their debuts.

I gave them a list of a half-dozen prompts, ranging from “What’s the most difficult sport and why?” to “Summarize how to prepare for a test,” that the kids would present to each student. Stuart, the technology-savvy teen, used the Memo application on his iPod to record each student’s response. Audrey used her iPod to time them (15 seconds to prepare, 45 seconds to speak). Together they managed to record 34 students spoken responses. And from there I am grading each for flow, content, pronunciation and amount of fillers (including those blessed um’s and uh’s). It was an ingenious method, if I do say so myself and allowed me to stay with the class, working on pronunciation and listening via a game of word Bingo.

I couldn’t have done it without the kids. In truth, I’m not sure I could do any of this without them.

Weekend in Ha Noi

Saturday morning we headed north with Mr. Bruce, another foreign teacher here at Hong Duc (though not for long). He was going to the airport, and we weren’t, so his driver dropped off on the west side of Ha Noi where we grabbed a taxi and headed off to Old Faithful (aka the Hanoi Holidays Hotel).

Unfortunately, on arrival we were moved to another hotel. While this may seem odd, it’s probably somewhere along the the twelfth or thirteenth time in our numerous stays that it’s happened. Usually it’s to a soiled and tired old hotel down by St. Joseph’s Cathedral, but this time it was just around the block to Charming Hotel.

And it was quite charming. The only drawbacks were that the tiny room cost us five dollars more and we couldn’t access the fridge because of the extra cot they had to bring in for us. C’est la vie. It was nice and free of mildew stains, plus it had a window. Ah, blessed windows.

Along the drive we passed this woman, which triggered my pineapple craving and as soon as we ran across someone in the Old Quarter selling the darling fruits, I bought one.

Plopped on a doorstep, the woman had already cut several pineapples into pieces and bagged them, eagerly waiting for the next customer.

“Pineapple, madam?” she called out as we approached.

“Mm, yes. Bao nhieu?”

“20,000.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle a little. Only tourists pay more than a dollar for a bit of pineapple. I smiled, “10,000.”

“Ok.” And she handed me a bag full of sweet, almost warm from the day’s heat, pineapple. Delicious.

Much of the weekend was spent splitting our time walking around the Hoan Kiem area and cooling off indoors. The temperature was butting right up to and then over the century mark, which made lengthy treks impossible.

So, instead, we would head out for an hour or two at a time before heading back to our air-conditioned (and television-equipped) hotel room. Despite the heat, it was beautiful.

We ventured out for food at Pepperoni’s (where the kids got pasta carbonara and meat-lover’s pizza. I was again stuck with salad–darned wheat intolerance).

We found a new pair of shoes for Stuart and another pair of sandals for me. Audrey never found anything she liked, though.

We visited our old haunt: the DVD shop and picked up Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian for less than a dollar. Keith has supplied us with enough movies to last all summer, so we were being extra picky (yes, even at that price.)

The views were stunning around Hoan Kiem. The green of the trees and the water contrasted so beautifully with the blue sky.

Keith and Trang invited us to dinner at Ciao Cafe, so we got the ground-level view on the way over and after dinner we headed to another cafe. Perched on the fourth level of the building, it had a wonderful view of Hanoi and, especially, Hoan Kiem lake. It made the heat almost bearable, drinking mixed-fruit smoothies and enjoying the vista.

Zander takes on the globe

I am officially green with envy. Add to that list, one more fellow who is doing what he wants, where he wants. And, from the little I know of him, I think he’s going to do some pretty great things. (Think I could convince you to vist Viet Nam next spring, Zander?)

through his eyes

Thanks to our good friend, Keith, my son has a wonderful little digital camera that he uses all the time. I particularly love it when he takes it on our little excursions. Sifting through the photos I get to see the activities through his eyes, something that is getting rarer as he gets older. Yesterday, we headed north to my sister’s city of residence and wandered around the city park, watching the small town “fun” of log-chopping and elephant ears. S. asked to go down to the lake to take some photos, I okayed it and off he went. Last night I downloaded the photos and was impressed, yet again, by the lovely images he had captured.

This is my favorite: S.'s view of the lily pads

He’s currently working on collecting photos for a book that we’ll make for the school we work at in Viet Nam, including photos of his school here, downtown Portland, the forest and tree fort at his grandparent’s house and typical tourist spots that we’ve visited. I am eagerly looking forward to the photos he takes while we are abroad.

Slowly But Surely

Having to deal with the rules regarding proof that the kids are mine alone has been more work than I figured it would be. I’ve visited the court house twice; the first time, the fellow there had no idea what I would need to provide proof. The second time was today and I knew what I needed. I stopped by the passport office at the Main Post Office and asked her exactly what I needed on Tuesday, then this morning I brought in my divorce papers to find out if it was actually what I needed. Yes, every single page, a copy for each kid and certified as authentic.

So, after dropping $23 at the courthouse for said papers, I was set.  I then set out to find a place to be fingerprinted. This was harder than the handy-dandy list provided by the sheriff made it seem. After two seedy buildings and  wandering dark hallways, I decided I would head to the place I’d seen on the way to school; it was run by a nice Russian lady and only cost me 8 bucks.

I’d brought along our birth certificates, passport applications, now had the certified proof of sole parental rights so after school we headed over to Walgreen’s to get our photos taken (the others had gone inexplicably wrong and I didn’t want to worry about it). Picture-taking wasn’t as easy as it should be: Audrey’s head was too small, then Stuart’s was slightly too small. Mine was do-able, but the kids’ had to be re-taken. Point-click. Oops. The media card wasn’t in the camera. Try it again and this time it worked just fine. At $8/2 photos, it racked up another $24 today.

We headed over to Fred Meyer to make photographic copies of the photos, but that didn’t work well (cut the sides off of the photos) so I said screw it and we’ll just go apply. Finally got back to the passport office to realize that they’d closed 20 minutes before. -sigh-

Thursday’s to-do list:
-apply for passports
-mail in fingerprints for background check
-send caramels to Ron
-send apron to Robin
-start working on new sewing job
-don’t forget homework (again)