Friday, December 21, 2007

Merry Holidays

Hopefully, all the presents are wrapped, your bags are packed or unpacked (if you’re traveling) and the tree is trimmed. Hopefully, you aren’t planning on frantically shopping for all of your gifts Monday. Allegedly, my great-grandfather would do this every year. Wait until Christmas Eve and knock it all out. God only knows the crap he gave. We all know the “pressure” gifts we’ve bought in the past. Hell, the stores know we cave under pressure. Why do you think Victoria’s Secret has the cute jammies packaged to go? Pottery Barn has frames pre-wrapped. (Which strikes me as strange since I usually give frames with pictures in them hence making more work. Unwrap, put picture in, rewrap. It’s a whole extra step plus feeling badly about unwrapping the nice wrapping.) The perfume gift sets at Macy’s? Those scream, “Help me! I’m clueless, but this looks nice and kinda smells good.” We’ve all caved and bought crap.

Our family is so lucky this year. First, they get a great picture of us from our wedding in a nice, wrapped-only-once frame. Just what they all want! (At least my mom does and I’m hoping we make the photo wall at my dad’s, father-in-law’s and brother-in-law’s. This is a milestone photo, people!) And then, they get some goody from Vietnam like a Tiger beer t-shirt or lacquered coasters or purses from the peddlers in Sapa. I mean, these are things people really, really want. (I swear they are cooler than they sound.)

So, I hope everyone loves the presents you give, and in return, you get all the goodies your heart desires.

Merry Christmas!
Happy Hannukah!
Fabulous Kwanza!
Wonderful Solstice!
Dreamy Days Off From Work!

May your holidays be drama-free and full of love and laughter.

Peace out ‘til 2008. I have to go drink some schnapps.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Birth of a Hypocrite

I’ve been told Los Angeles has one of the largest homeless populations in the United States. (40,000 is the estimate –that’s a TOWN!) Just in case you didn’t know that includes the infamous Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles and Venice Beach. From what I understand, the shelters are over-crowded and no one wants to pay to help resolve the problem.

Since it’s winter (yes, we have one) the homeless seek shelter (homeless does not mean stupid). As recently as last year there were areas on the boardwalk that offered refuge in front of stores. Many evenings, when Pete and I went for walks, we would see groups of people settling in for the night there. Now, there are metal gates that prevent them from getting cover. Where do they go? Parking garages – including ours.

In the past week or so, our garage (more like a large car port) became a homeless haven. When I left for work in the morning, I saw people lounging on a mattress, bikes propped up, people asleep between the cement parking stop and the wall. When I came home from work, they were either still there or back for the night. Everyone was really nice, and even said good morning and other niceties. But honestly, they bother me.

For all my life I’ve considered myself a liberal. I vote Democratic. I believe more funding should be spent on social services and education than the war. I believe we should fix the domestic problems before we meddle in more international ones. I believe there should be shelters and rehab facilities for people who end up homeless. I even think homeless have a right to someplace public to sleep. But then again, my garage isn’t public.

I’ve become one of them. You know, the “it’s all good as long as it isn’t in my backyard” people who claim to be liberal. It was easy when I didn’t smell urine walking to my car every morning. It was easy when I didn’t come home to a junkie puking in the corner by my neighbor’s car. It was easy when I had a washer and dryer and didn’t have to go to the garage to wash my clothes where the washers are conveniently placed so when I’m loading the washer, my back is to the door. There is nothing like doing laundry and looking over my shoulder making sure a crazy isn’t going to jump me (I’m not the only woman in the building who won’t do laundry after dark). It was easy when I could park my car at night and not worry that a person high on drugs wasn’t going to pee (or worse) on it. Before he knew better, Pete sometimes left his car unlocked. Once, he found a crack pipe, and once he found a person who’d been smoking a crack pipe. These things don’t happen in the suburbs.

It’s easy to be liberal when everyone is like you. I still believe the same things, but I thought I was a bigger, better person who could empathize with homelessness, and in theory, I do. I just don't want them in my garage.

I loathe to admit, but when I drove into the alley the other night and saw police officers herding the homeless out of our garage, I did a little cheer inside. And I hated myself for it.

A Birthday Experience

Last Saturday was Pete’s birthday. I woke him up by yelling, “Happy Birthday!” I bounced on the bed asking, “You want your presents?” before running off to the living room to retrieve the little pile of goods I’d wrapped. You’d think it was my birthday I was so excited.

To top the day off, I took him to Wolfgang Puck’s steakhouse CUT in Beverly Hills. For our wedding, we’d received a $200 gift certificate for it, and I thought his birthday was a great excuse to go.

As stated before, I love food. I love to cook. I like reading cookbooks, cooking magazines, restaurant reviews and most of all, trying new restaurants. When I was single, my favorite pastime was dining out. Even when I was in high school, my friends and I would go to the American Café near Tyson’s Corner over a party some weekends. (I know, I’m a geek.) My favorite thing is finding great, authentic food at reasonable prices (of course), but I am not one to shy away from highly recommended, expensive places. Food is my one splurge. No matter how broke I ever was, I always found money for good food (to make or order).

Earlier in the day, I introduced Pete to the concept of King for your Birthday. For logistical reasons, we haven’t spent a birthday together until this one. Apparently, his family didn’t’ play this game. I mean, some years, my brother and I even stayed home from school because, hello! royalty doesn’t need to go to school. How unbecoming. (My senior year a teacher even called home and yelled at my mom for being a bad mother and I was actually sick – a first.)

Pete knew we had the gift certificate and he was, for the first time in his life, crowned king and quite enjoyed it. He ordered what he wanted without even a glance at the prices. I tried to manage what I ordered, but it’s not easy.

This is what we ordered:

A Kettle One dirty martini
2 glasses of Cabernet
A plate of beef sashimi (that would be raw beef to ya’ll) (Guess who ordered that?)
A fancy apple salad with dates and almonds (I think I can make it with some imagination)
A bone-in filet mignon
A bourdelaise sauce for said filet (yes, the sauces cost $2)
An aged New York sirloin
A horseradish sauce for said NY sirloin
A side of mashed potatoes
A side of roasted carrots and artichoke bits
A chocolate soufflé

We were also given delicious cheese puffs, great focaccia (though not a great pretzel roll so deemed by the German birthday boy), a tasting tray of four mustards for the steaks plus small pieces of sweets (a chocolate bar thing and a lemon bar). Everything was incredible (minus the pretzel roll). The service was almost impeccable except we were without a candle for awhile after Pete accidentally blew it out for the second time. (The first time it was promptly relit. Maybe they were trying to teach him a lesson? EAT IN THE DARK, YOU CANDLE-BLOWER-OUTER!)

The experience was truly birthday worthy. We had fun. The people-watching was excellent although a bit intimidating since everyone seemed to be a millionaire. I kept waiting for someone to shout, “IMPOSTERS!” and be thrown out.

I knew Cut was going to be expensive. It’s a steakhouse. They are all expensive (at least the ones without salad bars). Before we went, I thought back to a dinner I had at Mastro’s, another Beverly Hills’ steakhouse for $150 (in hindsight, no apps or martinis) and actually thought we might have money left over to pay for part of a meal at Chinois on Main (Wolfie’s restaurant we can walk to). Oh how naïve I was.

Our meal was the MOST expensive meal I’ve ever been a part of (and seen the bill). $322.53 (including tip). As I mentioned before, I splurge on food. I’ve spent $80 on myself for dinner more than a few times. We’ve had prix fixe Valentine’s dinners that cost $100 per person. But $160 per person???


When Pete woke up Sunday morning, he said, “Do you know what we could have bought with $300?”

“Yes. And we bought an experience we don’t need to have again.”

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Yin and Yang

I’m kind of cheap. I mean, I’m not the person at a group dinner splitting the cost of the appetizer, adding up my entrée and one glass of wine, loudly declaring, “I only had one glass of wine. I’m paying $20 instead of $40!” We all know that person. No, I’m not her. I guess I’m more “frugal.”

I hate paying full retail price. HATE IT. I hate it so much that last Saturday I waited not one, but TWO HOURS to get into the Citizens of Humanity sample sale. TWO HOURS!! (Okay, we left to check other sample sales and came back to our same spot in line the nice women in front of us held while they thought we were eating but it was still 1 hour and fifteen minutes.) On the bright side, I found four pairs of pants for $320 instead of $800, but come on! It was almost my ENTIRE Saturday! Do I really NEED four new pairs of pants? Probably not. (See? Frugal, not cheap.)

Which brings me to my yang. Pete is generous. I mean, really, really, makes-my-tight-fist-clench generous.

I’ll go online to buy a wedding gift for a wedding we didn’t attend, and think, “This lovely vase seems like a good purchase.”

“No, you can spend more.”

“Um, okay. The platter is nice, too.”

“Get them the platter AND the vase,” he’ll declare.

My little, cheap heart shudders.

To give a little perspective, I was broke for years after college (like twelve). I graduated and moved to Los Angeles, which isn’t the smartest thing to do without money or nice clothes or parents to live with. Luckily, Visa and MasterCard thought I should look stylish and eat at fabulous restaurants so they sponsored me. After I grew tired of all the trying so hard, I decided I needed to move back to Colorado. Again, Visa and MasterCard took pity on me and helped finance it. My pals Visa and MasterCard never wanted me to go without, and kindly stepped in to buy me new furniture for my apartment in Boulder. They paid for lift tickets for skiing. Dinner out with friends. The outfit I wore to go to dinner and the one for skiing. They were like fairy godparents. Until I had to pay them back.

I always worked over the years, but it seemed like none of the jobs paid very well. When I realized those nasty fairy godparents weren’t going to help, I battened down the hatches. Money squeaked out. I stopped spending as frivolously. I started thinking, “Do I need another pair of black shoes or could I send that money to Visa or MasterCard?” My mindset around money shifted completely. I learned to respect money, but it took awhile. It wasn’t like I just woke up and thought, “By Jove I’ve got it! Stop spending!”

And then finally, one bright day, after scrimping, respecting and limiting my eating out habit (it is bad), I found that I was no longer indebted to Visa and MasterCard.

Which brings me back to Pete. He has never been indebted to the ugly fairy god parents. He’s German. Europeans don’t understand the concept of getting in debt to build credit so he never did. He had low points in his financial life, but not with the noose of debt hanging around his neck. He approaches spending very differently than I do.

Which brings me to last night and why I am lucky that he’s my husband. My friend Heidi produced an indie film, and had a silent auction to raise money for it last night. He was intent on finding things to bid on, and we did. When I didn’t want to bid more for something, he would say, “But it’s for Heidi! It’s a good cause.” While I agreed, I didn’t see the need for us to have flip-flop coasters or pay over the retail price for a cool travel book (plus I donated a few items for the auction).

We ended up with the winning bid for a beautiful antique watch Pete had to have and winning the raffle ($50 gift certificate for a local restaurant). Unfortunately, most of the people there didn’t bid on anything, and things (other than the travel book) went for far under value. Thankfully, I have him in my life to loosen my purse strings and let some of the money flow. Not to mention, support my friends.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Saigon a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City

We arrived in Saigon late on a Sunday night and found out that Pete’s bag was still in California. So by the time we filled out paperwork, it was really late. Like midnight. Our first taste of Saigon, therefore, was really quite mellow. Our taxi driver introduced us to honking and optional stoplights (it seems as if they all are), and then, after passing the hotel I tried to get us a room in, dropped us off and pointed down an alley. He said our hotel was down there.

This is the alley AFTER we went down the creepy alley. Looks kind of nice in the late day.

To preface this, I spent hours reading forums on TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree researching places to go, money (what’s best to bring – answer: crisp $100US, $1 and $5 bills), and of course, safety. All over the boards are warnings about bogus taxis, getting dropped off at hotels that one didn’t ask to go to. The list goes on.

So, here we are at midnight in Saigon handing a taxi driver $8US to drop us off in the middle of the street and point us to an alley. Naïve American travelers? Yes. But here’s the thing: our hotel really was down the little alley.

I’m frugal. I don’t see the point in spending hundreds of dollars a night on a room I’ll barely spend time in. Most women, when it comes to their honeymoon, would have never agreed to stay anywhere besides top tier hotels because they only cost about $200 a night instead of $500 in Hawaii. But, I found us a room for $13 a night. Why spend so much on a hotel when we could spend that on more travel or great meals? This is the same mentality I use when booking coach tickets.

Sometimes my frugality bites me in the ass. This would be one of those times. Our lovely host led us to our cell, I mean room, on the first floor. It was just large enough to fit a double bed, small refrigerator and small wardrobe. I was glad Pete’s bag was missing. It wouldn’t have fit. Did I mention the window looked out onto the hallway and had BARS ON IT?

Pete’s clothes were in California. We were sleeping in a cell. This was our HONEYMOON. If I hadn’t been so tired, I might have cried.

The next morning, we asked our host if he had any other rooms with windows looking OUTSIDE and also, higher in the building because we heard everyone stomp to breakfast and their plans for the day. He showed us a nice room on the third floor with a window to outside, but he told us it was more. It was $16 more. I thought this was a little steep, but at that point, my cheapness was keeping quiet. We moved our (that would be my) things to the new room with the hope Pete’s would arrive that day.

The first day was like being thrown into a circus ring with all the shows going at once. Saigon has 3 million motor scooters (motos), and they function similarly to cars. People pile whole families onto them, shopping bags, refrigerators, bookshelves – you name it, it goes on a moto. Coming from a country where kids stay in car seats until they are 80 pounds, it shocked me to see toddlers sitting between their mom or dad's legs or STANDING between mom and dad as they zipped and dodged across the city. Most of them didn't have helmets. It was mind boggling.

Once we processed the moto craziness, we realized we had to wade in to cross the street. All intuition and rules about crossing the street had to be abandoned. The only way to cross through the madness was to step into it. Luckily, motos are agile and weave around pedestrians. We paused for buses and large cars to pass, but otherwise, it was best to keep moving. I admit, the first time we crossed a major street, we followed a local woman who was about, oh 90. Please note, we didn’t help her across; we followed her. Trembling.
Note the family crossing the street with traffic flowing. Totally normal.
We spent the day alternately getting scammed since it was our first day and we didn’t know better, avoiding crossing the street and absorbing the chaos around us. It was incredibly overwhelming, and at the same time, exhilarating. Aside from the fact that there are cars, people and buildings, it was like nowhere we’d ever been before. It was organized chaos. And we loved it.
This is my "stop taking my picture and let's get some food" face. I'm very serious about food.

Friday, December 7, 2007

My Husband

When I started this blog, my husband thought it was a really bad idea. He doesn’t like the idea of personal information available for public consumption, and because of that, I try my best to keep our lives slightly veiled. I published a post prior to leaving for Vietnam that said how long we would be gone for and how excited I was. I wanted to share the excitement, but then, I started thinking about it all. What if someone was reading my blog and knew we were out of town…. All the “what ifs” starting creeping in, so I deleted it.

Although he has warmed to the idea of my posting about our lives, he asked me not to use his name, which is why I refer to him as “my husband.” I hate writing that because it seems so… well, unlike me. I thought about just calling him, “The German,” but that’s a nickname I would have given him if we’d dated and it hadn’t work out.

He has a German name that isn’t common in the US, so he saves himself time at restaurants and coffee shops by simply telling them his name is Pete. So, to honor him, I won’t call him by his real name. From here on out, he will be known as Pete.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Oh right... there was a war.

In school, I never learned much about the Vietnam War (called the American War there). My school district made time for the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, a brief snippet of the World Wars, and a quick, off-handed reference to the Vietnam War. Maybe it was too close for comfort. Maybe some of the district planners were there, or lost family there. Hopefully, Ken Burns will make a documentary so I can fill in the parts I don't understand.

It's hard to avoid the War in Vietnam. The main tourist attractions in Saigon and Hanoi center on it. We duly played tourist and went to the museums and landmarks.

In Saigon, I had a quick lesson from the winner’s point of view at the War Remnants Museum. I felt awful being an American. I am not a flag-waving American, but I am happy to be one. Looking at the pictures of the defoliation destruction, the birth defects caused by Agent Orange and the devastation that the war caused made me sick. Recently, I watched Ken Burns' documentary on World War II (it's amazing if you haven't seen it), and in it, veterans talk about how during the war, they did things they are ashamed of. Because of that documentary, I felt I better understood the savagery of war, but still, it’s awful. And whoever thought we could beat the Vietnamese had never spent time with them. Small, strong, stealth and proud - I couldn’t imagine battling them.

The Cu Chi tunnels only furthered my thoughts on that. Over 20 years, hundreds of miles of tunnels were dug that went down 3 and 4 stories. They included rooms for meeting, making weapons, sleeping, hospitals and cooking with the smoke vented far from the actual kitchen. It was ingenious - and hellish. The tunnel openings were about 12”x8” and completely camouflaged by leaves. They created escape routes and, in places, made the tunnels narrower to prevent the larger American GIs from crawling through. (They've since widened the tunnels for the tourists.) We went though about 40 meters of tunnel. Crawling through, I put my hands on the wall in front of me to feel where I was going (or used the light from my camera). It was pitch black and hot. Sometimes, they stayed underground for weeks. I was happy to be out after 5 minutes. How do you win against this?

Where's the opening?
The opening we went into was dramatically larger and had stairs.
It looks bright only because of the flash. It was pitch black. Note my wide-open psycho eyes.
At one point of the tour, there is a rusty skeleton of a bombed-out American tank. The tour stops, with the tour guide telling us that it is a defeated American tank. Since litigation isn't as popular there, people are allowed to climb all over it. I've never been in or on a tank so I took the opportunity to climb on it. While I was on it, I couldn't stop thinking that someone's father, brother, son or husband died here, and now I'm climbing on it like it's part of an amusement park. It was haunting.

The whole thing was kind of creepy: laughing and posing for pictures in tunnels (snapping away blindly and hoping the camera is facing the right direction) that people hid in, climbing on tanks, seeing traps that ensnared Americans, shooting guns (we didn't because we decided that was something we could do in the US with safer, newer guns), and making sure to stop for ice cream. And despite all of that, it's interesting and I'm glad I went.

We also went to the Reunification Palace, which was taken the day the US evacuated (April 30, 1975 for those who, like me, had no idea). I still don't know all the details of the Palace other than the "puppet" leader (so called because they say the Americans were really in control) lived there until they assassinated him. Then, the new regime moved in and redecorated the place (and the 60s decor remains to this day). There were two stories underground that served as a mission control. But apparently, I was paying more attention to the 60s sofa than the lecture because I don't remember the details.

Cruising the halls of mission control 2 stories down. Much more comfortable than Cu Chi.
By the time we were in Hanoi, I wanted to avoid the war stuff, but again, it is the main stuff on the tourist map. After wandering the French Quarter and walking around the lake, we decided we needed to check out some more history. Unfortunately, Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh) was on vacation in China getting a little work done. Otherwise, we would have gone to see him at his mausoleum. I mean, how often do you get to see a dead person?

We decided to go to the infamous Hoa Lo Prison (a.k.a. Hanoi Hilton). The Vietnamese don't mess around. They put mannequins into the racks that people used to be in just in case your imagination went on hiatus with Uncle Ho. My personal favorite was peering into small cells, and getting the crap scared out of me because a life-like mannequin was chained-up inside. For years, the French used this prison to house Vietnamese, and that is the main focus, but the part that most interested me was that it was used for POWs during the Vietnam War. John McCain was in the “Hilton” from 1967 to 1973. I had no idea he was there for so long. From the photos and information, life in the “Hilton” was pleasant and full of comforts. I haven't done my research, but I find this hard to believe. I mean, it was a WAR.

After all the war sites, going to the War Museum was overkill (and I wish we had skipped it for the art museum). Although it covered all of the Vietnamese wars, there was a large portion dedicated to the American war. It was interesting to see information on the American anti-war protests in support of pulling out of Vietnam. I never would have thought those would end up in a museum in Vietnam. Outside, they had the requisite US Army helicopters, tanks and planes they recovered during or after the war.

All in all, it was a lot to process. The death. The hand my country had in it. The rebuilt country. The bad curating. Someone needs to tell them to unfold the uniforms and put them on mannequins. I could only handle so much before I needed to sit outside with a coffee, and the Vietnamese definitely know how to make a good coffee. But more on that another day.