by Richard Sterling
In which we hear news of Heidi and learn about the importance of custom.
Miss Tittie is still without paramour. I am surprised. I thought she would fill the void immediately. I thought she would set off a bidding war! It’s about 11 p.m. right now and I just left her at Soakville. She was dressed in a white Ao Dai (pronounced OW yai), the traditional loose trousers under a long, split tunic that makes a woman look at once winkingly provocative and yet modest as a nun. She was sitting with Miss High-Ho, who still thinks my name is Killian. I have not disabused her of that. I kind of like Killian. Miss Tittie greeted me with a wave and a pat on her head to indicate the The Hat, even though I don’t wear it at night. A couple of flower girls converged on me and insisted I buy each lady a rose. Only one dollar each. Ha! They must be new girls. Mr. Hat knows that he can get four for a dollar. And all the other girls know that Mr. Hat might buy them a coke, even a bowl of noodles, but he don’t buy roses.
I waved off the girls and Miss High-Ho invited me to sit down and buy both the ladies a dinner. I thanked her but no-thanked her, and “chatted” with Miss Tittie for a bit. I have trouble communicating with her, but I have very little trouble understanding what she wants to convey. But then I’m not used to using sign. Well the gist of her message was that she still has no sugar daddy because she’s raising the bar. She can do better, and she will. She is an avid reader, she told me. She respects a man who writes well. She has read a pirate copy of one of my books, World Food Vietnam. She, as all here who even see the book, is very flattered at my homage to her native culinary art. She asks me once again if I am interested in a mutually beneficial commercial and personal relationship of indeterminate duration. Terms to be negotiated.
I have to say, I’m flattered. And if my publishers were more generous (and that means you, too, James and Larry!) I could be quite tempted. But I’m not as rich as I look. And as well, I am going to be out of town soon for several weeks. Not a good time to start a commercial and personal relationship of indeterminate duration. With a twinge of regret (okay a lot of regret) I wish her luck, and come home.
I got a note from little love, Heidi, recently. So did a few others. I had given her some stamped envelopes, each with a single sheet of blank paper inside, and a cheap plastic pen that could have no resale value. Crawling Lady, Madame, Mrs. Fruit (more on her later), and I compared notes. She arrived safely after an uneventful journey. They stopped for a couple of days in Hue, where they have kin. They arrived in Hanoi five days after their departure. As yet they have no mailing address. She mentioned mundane things we all know about. All the other notes were longer than the one she sent to me. That’s because her English is limited. But there was one thing in my note not in any of the others. It was something I’d taught her early on. She signed off with “See you later alligator.” How is it that such a little thing can punch a man in the gut so hard, and yet you want it to punch you again?
Up the Down Staircase?
Well I’m keeping up with the running in Cong Vien Park. Madame still laughs at me when I come back sweating bullets. And she loves to wring out a hunk of my shirt and watch the sweat run. Then she sits me down at my usual table and towels me off in mother hen fashion, chuckling all the while, telling me I’m crazy. Today folks across the alley at the Ice Cream Hotel laughed at the scene, joking that they couldn’t tell if she were my mother or my wife. They decided it would be funnier if she were my wife, and the joke rippled down the alley. I hope they don’t start calling me Mr. Madame!
Well, as you know by now, folks here do like to pigeonhole you. They ask your age, your marital status, how many kids you have, what’s your sign, where did you get your hat. And once they’ve got you neatly in your hole you’re in that hole for good. Unless and until a voice of great authority, such as Madame Marxist, tells them a greater truth. A few days ago I was doing my usual counter-clockwise laps around the park. I decided that was monotonous and switched directions, running clockwise for the rest of the run. At the end I sat on the usual park bench to catch my breath before repairing to Madame’s for my well earned suds. One of the park workers approached me, and just stood there regarding me, with a somewhat worried or confused look on his face. I figured he’d never seen a paleface up close all sweaty and pink. But then he spoke, in halting English. He told me his name, but I shall always call him Mr. Park. After the obligatory pleasantries Mr. Park paused, sucked his tobacco stained teeth and said, “I see you running many times in my park.”
I should explain that here in Vietnam anything with which a person is affiliated is “my.” The waiter says, “Welcome to my restaurant.” The dish washer says, “I wash my dishes.” The garbage man says, “I collect my garbage.” The junior cop says, “I direct my traffic,” while the sergeant and the captain and the chief say, “I collect my taxes” (of course they mean that). And beware if you should come to visit, for when speaking English they often confuse the possessive pronouns. You might be introduced to a lady and be told that she is “your” wife. A lady may say that she is going to “my” room later, and then you find her at your door. My, oh my!
But on to Mr. Park’s report. He has been watching me. Perhaps he has been taking notes. Maybe I’ve somehow been doing something unauthorized and he is going to “fine” me. “Every day I see you,” he says, “and you run that way,” indicating counter-clockwise. He waits for my response to his close observation. “Uh, yeah…,” says I.
He pauses, as though looking for just the right words, and says in an almost solicitous manner, “But today you change. After you start.” Then he awaits enlightenment. I say nothing.
“Something wrong in my park?” he asks.
“No, Sir,” I say, and I tried to explain that I changed my steady course on a whim. More the fool I.
“Somebody make trouble for you?” he asks.
“No, no trouble.”
“Something in your way?”
“No, nothing, nothing in the way.”
“I work very hard to make the park good.”
“Yes, I’m sure you do.”
“But you don’t like to go that way.”
“I like to go that way.”
“Why you don’t go that way?”
“I go that way before.”
“But now you don’t go.”
“Yes, well, you see…”
I knew there was no explaining, rationally. I might as well try to tell him about Panama hats and cowboy hats. If only Madame Marxist had been there to bail me out. I wondered what she might have said. Yes, yes indeed. What would Madame Marxist say? Well, she might tell him to mind his own business! But then I’m not a party member. I’m a foreigner, and possibly some kind of heretic. I’m from California. Ah ha!
“You know California?”
“Yes,” he says hesitantly. “I have cousin in California. Also Minnesota.”
“I am from California. And in California we do that.”
“Number one sure.”
“Mostly. It’s a custom.” Custom is one thing people here can appreciate, even if they think it’s crazy. I got up, and I thanked him for all his hard work in making the park good. I congratulated him on a job well done. That kind of thing is important here, along with custom, and pigeonholing, and soothsaying, and clinking-and-drinking, and joking, and laughing, and loving. I left Mr. Park still a little befuddled, but with at least a tentative smile on his face, and went for my suds at Madame’s, who thinks I’m crazy, but loves me anyway.
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where silence can be golden, where Big (or maybe little) Brother may be watching, and despite those jokers at Fox News Channel and the AM talk shows the French are okay. C’est bon!
Richard Sterling is the author of The Fire Never Dies, How to Eat Around the World, and several titles in Lonely Planet’s World Food series. His anthology, Food: A Taste of the Road, won a Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book, and he is also the editor of The Adventure of Food and coeditor of The Ultimate Journey.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.