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Woman relaxing on the beach in ThailandIf there is one thing that single, childless women don’t want to do it’s turn 40: that miserable place in time where it’s not quite too late for you but not looking good either. I knew that I had two options. I could sit in the bottom of my closet with a bottle of vodka, or I could go somewhere spectacular and pretend it wasn’t happening. That is how I ended up at the top of a skyscraper in Bangkok watching fireworks on my 40th birthday.

I had planned the trip of a lifetime packed with elephants and scuba diving, but I also decided to spend a few days in introspection; kind of like that woman did at an ashram in Eat, Pray Love. I’m a big fan of contrived, life-changing moments. I went to a tiny fishing village that looked like a good idea on the map. The hotel was fancy and remote and promised a Zen-like fantasy. I first became concerned about this decision when the taxi driver at the airport asked me if I was really sure and shook his head. When I arrived, the staff of the hotel were waiting out front, kind of like the servants waiting for the dowager at Downton Abbey.  I thought to myself, “You have now entered the Twilight Zone.” That thought got less and less funny over the next few days.

The receptionist said, “Welcome Miss Mick-esh-e-el-e.” My face froze for a minute so I could think about it. She had seen my passport and turned my middle name, Michelle, into 5 syllables. I smiled in amusement, not realizing that this is what the entire staff of the hotel was going to call me for the next three days. It turned out that I was the only guest in the hotel. It wasn’t just off-season in Thailand, it was off-off season. I would soon be able to answer the question, “Is there such a thing as too much customer service?”

Thai people don’t really drink, so the menus cater to marauding tourists who like umbrellas in their drinks. I usually only drink wine so they dusted off a bottle of warm red that I’m sure they found in a box in a storage room. I said I would take the whole bottle, thinking I would have a glass with dinner and take the rest back to my room, to be enjoyed at my leisure the next day. I ordered noodles and sat back to enjoy Kenny G over the loudspeaker. I took a sip of wine. A waiter leaped forward to refill my glass. I took another sip. Another person from the line behind me refilled the glass.

At that rate I was going to be drunk in no time so I left the glass alone and focused on my noodles. I took a bite and someone stepped forward to push the available spices closer to me. Three more bites and the staff was so bored that when I glanced away to enjoy the view, someone whisked my bowl away. I decided to take a break from the awkward silence and went in the direction of the bathroom. A man jumped in front of me to lead the way, pointing out each step in case I hurled myself down the staircase. He opened the door to the ladies bathroom and waved me through the door. You heard me. He opened the public restroom door. “Well, this just keeps getting creepier,” I thought. A bathroom attendant bowed and directed me into a stall. I was the only guest in the hotel and there was a bathroom attendant waiting for me.

In Thailand, many restrooms don’t have toilet paper. They have a high-pressure hose on a hook next to the toilet. My first encounter with the hose is a story for another day, but it has to be said that I firmly believe that a bathroom where you have to spray yourself with a hose should not have an attendant, just on principle. I eventually went back to my room deflated and discouraged by my weird and lonely evening. My Eat, Pray, Love moment this was not.

Where was I going with this? Oh, yes . . . turning 40. Fortunately, my friend, Bree, joined me in Bangkok to stop me from combining both Plan A and Plan B and drinking vodka in a closet in a hotel in Thailand. We walked down a sketchy street one night in search of dinner and an authentic Thai experience, and found a street vendor with a card table in an alley. I pointed at something that looked like chicken and we took our seats in the alley, enjoying the fact that our mothers would have had a heart attack if they knew where we were. There was a waitress of sorts but she seemed disinclined to help us in any way so we decided it was a “help yourself” kind of alley and liberated some water from a fridge.

While we were eating our surprisingly delicious meal on paper plates, I surveyed the terrain and saw a huge skyscraper with a fancy dome at the top that was clearly a restaurant. I told Bree that when we were quite finished scrounging for water and chicken in the alley, we should find that dome. That is how—the next day on my 40th birthday—we ended up in the fanciest open-air restaurant at the top of the largest building in Bangkok, watching fireworks over the river. It was an amazing moment that I couldn’t have planned if I had tried. I teared up on the balcony, grateful that, although my retreat in a fishing village had turned out to be a disaster, a random upward glance from an alley had brought everything together to give me my moment . . . to remind me that life wasn’t ending at 40.

It turns out meaningful experiences can’t always be planned. Those moments find you. They won’t come to you if you are in the bottom of a closet with a bottle of vodka, so you have to put yourself out there. But you also can’t decide when happiness will find you. You just have to trust that it will. It was a surprise but I will never forget the moment when the city of Bangkok put on a fireworks show just for me. Shhh, that’s what happened.

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family relationships auntsWhen I’m in a foreign country I try to stick with the local cuisine. I didn’t travel all the way to Thailand to eat pizza, although most menus offer it for the tourists who can’t hold their pad see ew. I make an effort to immerse myself in the culture and learn all about how the locals eat. However, two weeks into curry and rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I lost all control in the really touristy part of Phuket. I ordered my native cuisine: tortilla chips and guacamole. (True Los Angelinos refer to it in the familiar tense: “guac.” Chips are implied because how else are you going to get 30 grams of fat into your mouth?) My delicious contraband arrived via a waitress wearing a sombrero. I opted not to mention that the symbol of the sombrero has become derogatory to Southern Californians who think they are sensitive to Mexicans, and I just said, “Gracias.” She apologized and explained that her English was not very good. My margarita (“Marg” for those in the know) was a glass of lime juice so I asked for a shot of tequila. She also did not understand this So Cal linguistic gem. Confusing Thai waitresses in Mexican restaurants is my new favorite pastime.

It turns out guac is a gateway drug. Drunk on jalapeños and cilantro, I forged ahead with fajitas and the guilt set in. This is not how I behave in other countries. I’m not that American who asks for ketchup or points out every McDonalds in excitement. For the record, I counted 43 Mickey D’s in two weeks. Thais are not immune to the “Sandwich for breakfast with pork.”

As a multi-lingual citizen of Earth (I can order red wine in nine dialects) I feel an obligation to behave differently in foreign countries. Thailand was a challenge. Showing anger is a sign of weakness in Thai culture. You can kick a puppy and spit in their green tea and they will still say “sah wah dee khrap!” (Which in my experience either means “Welcome” or “Gullible American in the house!”) You are not supposed to show your First World right to be annoyed when your shuttle to the elephant sanctuary is an hour late or your 4-star hotel room is infested with lizards, which you discover at 3 a.m. The staff will follow you around with their hands clasped in a bow that signals, “No matter how American you behave, we are going to smile and thank you.” How do you threaten to write a bad Yelp review with that going on? There is no place for entitlement in Thailand. It’s refreshing and challenging all at the same time, and I was doing my best to embrace the attitude of those around me. Absorbing myself in their culture was a good reminder to check my own mental outlook.

I was feeling guilty about sitting in a Mexican restaurant listening to “The Girl from Ipanema” playing on a loop on the jukebox. I was betraying my travel-goddess integrity when I should have been slurping up noodles in coconut milk. And then my fajitas arrived, sizzling their love to me on a hot plate. I grabbed a tortilla and created the perfect balance of salsa, sour cream and guac like an expert and took my first glorious bite. Something was not right. Further inspection revealed that the chicken was coated in peanut satay sauce. Most entertaining Mexican restaurant ever.

I have promised to take my niece and nephews travelling with me when they are teenagers. They have decided that means thirteen. I was thinking more like sixteen but I’ve lost that battle on a technicality. While my mind contemplated my opportunity as an aunt to expose them to the world in a way that won’t teach them to be entitled, an Australian blonde in a bikini loudly announced that the glass of lime juice was the best margarita she had ever had. As an Aussie myself, I can confirm that an Australian wouldn’t recognize Mexican food if they sat on it. I decided that this was enough ridiculousness for one day. We all have our limits. I stepped out into a street that bore an unfortunate resemblance to Tijuana, passed the Burger King in my hotel lobby, and fired up the wifi to make a reservation at a guest house in a remote fishing village I had never heard of . . . where I could be guaranteed curry and rice for breakfast.

ImageI have a guy friend who isn’t exactly up on the latest suggestions for how to treat a woman. When we are walking down the street, he walks three steps in front of me. If he goes through a door first, it usually slams back in my face. Sometimes I think he is intentionally treating me like one of the boys so that I don’t get confused about our friendship. But most of the time I just think he’s an idiot. On the other hand, I have another friend who is also not threatening to fall in love with me who is a complete gentleman. On an excursion recently, we got out of the car and started walking down the street. He was telling me a story and without missing a beat, stepped around behind me so that he was walking on the outside of the sidewalk. I was floored because being a gentleman is such a lost art. I’m quite possibly the most independent woman I know, but this little sign of respect was a very pleasant surprise.

There are many theories about the origin of this point of etiquette. If you Google it, you will find all kinds of people sharing things they heard from someone who heard something. A wonderful thing, the Internet. According to the informed public, a man walks on the outside because in medieval times, the practice of emptying chamber pots out of the upper windows into the gutter made a walk down the street so hazardous that the gentleman took the side most likely to be drenched. Gallant men also took the side closest to the street to protect the lady from mud splashed up by the horse and carriages. In more modern times, men walk on the outside to protect the woman from a car that may jump the curb (because what women worry about when strolling down the street is the cars that come flying up onto the sidewalk.) And my personal favorite: pimps walk with their prostitutes on the outside to show them off to oncoming traffic, so gentlemen do the opposite. I’m going with that one. My dear friend walked on the outside to announce to the world that I’m not a ho, in case anyone was confused. The point is there is no reason for a man to walk on the outside. It’s just a classy gesture that signals to a girl that he is thoughtful and considerate.

I have been giving some thought to how you teach a child to be a gentleman so that when he is grown, treating a lady like a lady is second nature. It is not just a job for a parent because if they are the only ones who expect it of them, it is much harder to make it instinctive. So far all I’ve been teaching my seven-year-old nephew, Rider, is that sneaking up and jumping on me will usually instigate a very unladylike wrestle, and licking my face instead of kissing me goodnight will always get the desired reaction. Wiping snot on my shirt has a similar effect. I do a fabulous job of making the kids say please. They know that every question addressed to me that starts with “Can you” has to end in “please.” When they forget, all I have to do is look at them like I don’t understand what they are saying and they quickly add the please. One of my five-year-old niece’s friends did not know what to do with my perfected stare and Rose rolled her eyes and whispered, “You have to say please. She has this whole thing about saying please.” It has become fun for me and I am proud of my success. But what else can I do to support their parents’ efforts?

One weekend Rider was the only one of my brother’s family who had not come down with a cold and I offered to keep him with me for the day. I knew that my cousin’s kids were getting together so I offered to invite ourselves over there to play. Rider shook his head and looked at me like he couldn’t believe that I didn’t know what he was thinking. “Umm, do you want to see if one of your friends can go out to lunch with us?” He looked disappointed and I looked around for an interpreter. Finally it came out that this was his day with me and he wanted to go out to lunch, just the two of us. I’ve added that moment to my list of the best things anyone has ever said to me. I gave him a list of options; Chucky Cheese, McDonalds, Tacos. He said he wanted sushi. Again my heart swelled with pride. I am having an effect on this kid! My brother has questionable taste and will not eat sushi, so once in a while, my sister-in-law and I will go out on a sushi date and leave the kids with him. Here was my little nephew asking for his very own sushi date, which was astounding because he doesn’t like it. He pretends to like it in front of his cousins so he looks as cool as they do, and his enthusiasm is very convincing. But I’ve watched the look on his face when he tries to chew it and I know better.

We got dressed up and went to a Japanese restaurant. We walked in and I said, “Two for the sushi bar please,” and Rider looked around to see if anyone was as impressed with us as he was. He was the only kid there and very proud to be sitting at the bar. I showed him how to put his napkin on this lap, unwrap his chopsticks and rub them together. He did a pretty good job of holding them. He learned that you don’t put the edamame shells that you just sucked on back into the bowl, and in Japan it is rude to leave rice on your plate. He picked at the sushi pieces, unrolled them and ate the rice. He clearly was not a fan of seaweed but he was trying to hide it. I pretended to be still hungry and ordered teriyaki. We talked about his friends, how annoying his little sister is, and the awesomeness of Star Wars. When we were done he said, “I’m the luckiest kid in the world. I get to have time with you by myself, eating the sushi of my dreams.”

To Rider, our lunch was not a learning opportunity. He did not know that I was showing him how to eat in a restaurant like a grown up and have a real conversation with a woman. I didn’t plan it so it was an accident for me too, but I recognized the teaching moment and took advantage of it.  We have actually been to that same restaurant with the whole family, cousins and all, and left the table and surrounding area looking like there had been a food fight. Children in groups are hard to contain in restaurants, especially when fried rice and chop sticks are involved. Being the only single person in my family, I was the only one skulking out of the restaurant in shame. This grown up alone time was a special treat for us both and something I hope to do more often with all of my kids. It may be a while before Rider is out of the licking, burping, ninja sneak attack stage that plagues so many seven-year-old boys, but when his wife tells me that she first noticed him when he opened the door for her and stepped around to the outside of the sidewalk, I hope that I will have done enough by then to take some of the credit.