Wandering the World
The Ground Beneath my Feet
This post is a part of a collaboration with Blog with Friends. Each month we choose a theme and everyone gives it their own special twist. This month's theme was Ice Cream so stay reading until the end and you will find links for more ice cream related fun!
Although my grandmother ate it all year round, ice cream lies firmly in the domain of summer. Cold, sweet, creamy and ephemeral, if you savor it for too long in these hot months, it will melt on you.
Turks however have found a way to make it last just a little longer by adding Salep flour, traditionally made from orchid root. The orchids are getting rare these days though so now it is often made with alternatives. Salep is similar to cornstarch in that it doesn't have a strong taste and it is used as a thickening agent. In the winter it is used to make a delicious cinnamony drink appropriately called Salep. In the summer however, it makes the ice cream chewy, sticky and stretchy and it makes it melt more slowly so you don't run the risk of it dripping down your cone and onto your hand as easily.
Click here for a recipe that doesn't even require an ice cream maker.
Ever creative and fun, Turks have used these unique properties to turn ice cream into a show. The vender stands at his post (I say his because I have never seen a woman ice cream vender but now that this has occurred to me, I will keep an eye out for one) ringing his bell and calling out to potential customers. While he waits he may play with the ice cream with a really long pole with a flat end pulling the ice cream in and out of the pot as a whole stretchy mass.
As soon as a customer approaches and orders a cone, the show begins! The vender will slice off a bit of ice cream, put it on a cone and offer it to the outstretched hand only to yank it back, twirl it around, and generally tease the expectant ice cream eater never letting them actually taste it until everyone is laughing. By the time you get your ice cream, a small crowd will have formed and the vender will have his next victim, eagerly awaiting his or her turn to be a part of the show.
For this video my daughter graciously agreed to costar in the event while I held the camera.
For more wonderful ways to enjoy ice cream this summer, be sure and check out these posts from my amazing blogger friends!
I arrived at the train station an hour and a half early this morning because I didn’t want to stress if anything went wrong. That meant that I had to wait in the big open area. I chose a seat, recombobulated all of my luggage that had gotten in disarray after the exray machine and started to sit down. Before I could even get my butt in the chair, this gentleman in his 80 came up to me, pointed at my suitcase and said something in Russian. I explained that I didn’t speak Russian but either he had trouble hearing or he didn’t care. He sat opposite me and told me stories for 45 minutes without stopping. At this point I realized that my inability to speak the language made me the perfect listener. I looked into his kind eyes, mirrored his expressions, nodded encouragement and found that I even understood a couple of things. He was talking about cataracts, some kind of knee problem and some kind of gastrointestinal problem. The rest of it went all over my head but I loved the way his ears were bigger than you see on most people, his eyes were expressive and he used his hands to emphasize his points. I also realized that it wasn’t important if I understood exactly what he was saying, he wanted human connection and so did I. Because I am spending most of my days in silence it was nice to have someone to listen too. I don’t know if he ever understood that I didn’t speak Russian but I do feel like we saw each other’s humanity.
So, now I am on to Moldova, a country I couldn’t have located on a map yesterday. It is according to the internet, the poorest country in Europe and when I checked out the map just now, it has no coast line. It looks as if the Ukraine has the coast that would most naturally belong to Moldova. I wonder how that happened and how it affects relations between the two countries.
While riding peacefully along reading a book, my mind relaxed just enough to allow a non peaceful thought in. This thought was that while I had checked that I didn't need a visa to visit Moldova, I had totally forgotten I had to pass through the Ukraine to get there and I had not checked if I needed a visa for the Ukraine. I scrambled to locate my phone but alas, I had not internet so I couldn't check. The train halted a good distance from the border and Russian immigration officials boarded and looked at our passports. My official was a very large man with a serious expression who looked at me and said VISA! I had a Russian visa so I wasn't really worried about him, it was the Ukrainian official I was worried about. He kept repeating VISA though; I just kept looking at him not understanding what he wanted. In hindsight, maybe he was trying to intimidate me into giving him some money or something but then decided it wasn't worth the trouble of trying to make me understand so with a larger than necessary motion, he slammed the stamp down on my passport and left. I thought that would be it, but then he came back a few minutes later and sat next to me in a chummy kind of way, as if I was some sort of lost child and motioned that I should open my purse so I did. The first thing he found upon opening up zippers were my feminine products. He hastily closed that and abandoned the search. Then he asked to see my backpack again he struck gold with my toiletries right off the bat and zipped everything back up. Apparently all of these things were just too much for him and my suitcase went untouched as he quickly left the cabin.
I thought the Ukrainian officials would come on next but we were still an hour away from the border so I had to sweat it out worrying that I would be detained at the border for lack of a visa. It was Friday night and images of having to sit at the border until offices opened up on Monday morning flashed through my mind. Would they give me food and water I wondered. When the super large Ukrainian immigration official all dressed in khaki filled the doorway I was nervous but I tried to play it cool and handed over my passport quietly. He looked at it briefly, stamped it and walked away, and I was left looking at the entry stamp in relief.
I think the next stop is Kiev. Someone just came by with giant meat sticks, they look tempting but must remember, running out of money and a 2 day fast is not that bad. If only someone would come by with a modestly priced meat pie or something.
Last night before going to bed I checked our progress to Moldova and thought wow we are making really good time. I can’t believe that it will take until 7 tomorrow evening to get to Chisinau. Today I believe it. We have taken a very circuitous route through this small but beautiful country. I am happy that I got to see so much from the window. Some of the things that struck me are that spring has arrived here. Everywhere the ground is covered in green and the trees are flowering. It is beautiful after the stark brownness of Siberia. There is also a lot more life going on along the train tracks here. Instead of endless forest, much of the way has houses nestled close to the tracks and I even saw families having picnics. It is the Easter season and people are out visiting the graves of relatives. Houses continue to have outhouses and now they have wells too.
I am beginning to get very thirsty. I have rubles, yen and euros but I don’t have leu. It strikes me how arbitrary things like money are. I am on the same train I bought juice on yesterday but today because we have crossed several borders, I can’t buy anything anymore. When I do get to eat and drink again I am going to savor it. I am surprised by how not hungry I am. It has been almost 48 hours since I last ate and really I am not feeling it much at all. I think it is all a mindset. When I got on this train I knew I was not going to eat much and because it is not in front of me I am not having to resist it. This makes me wonder if the pain of being hungry I usually feel is sometimes not so much a physical feeling in the gut but rather a mental exhaustion of not being able to resist what is available any longer.
I have also almost finished my last book today (Why Buddhism is True). Luckily this book was about meditation so maybe instead of filling my head with more books for the rest of the trip I can practice meditation. It certainly sounds like it can lead to a happier more fulfilled life if one actually practices it. I would love to get rid of the rollercoaster of negative feelings and wants.
Moldova itself wasn’t so great. It was rather hard to find anything to eat and I had to walk long distances for everything making my leg throb. I did manage to get a taxi without being ripped off this time though because when the first driver said he would take me to my airbandb for 16 Euro, I just said no and went outside. They then said they would do it for 100 Liu so I said 50 because that was all I had taken out of the ATM machine. I had no idea how much it was but when I checked it was like 3 dollars which is about right for the length of the ride and the fact that the driver got kind of lost. I was a bit confused as to why none of their map programs seemed to show them where the actual address was and all of the drivers spent a bit of time just trying to locate the address on the map. My phone brought it right up, no problem.
Upon arrival at the airbandb, Tatiana and her lovely husband greeted me warmly and asked if I was hungry. Not having eaten for 2 days I said yes and she found some vegetables for me to eat. About halfway through her husband (who spoke no English) came out and asked if I would like to try some of his homemade wine. He grew the grapes himself and it was absolutely delicious. I still have the rest of the bottle to give to Kerem and believe me, it is hard not to drink it. Then off to bed. The house was a cute 1 bedroom that was very nicely decorated. I had trouble sleeping because the dogs kept barking so I was a bit tired the next day. I did however find the train station on foot, I bought a ticket and I found a small bookstore to get something to read. It felt good to get all of that accomplished.
Arriving in Moscow I had absolutely no expectations, I hadn’t researched anything, I hadn’t read any novels taking place in Moscow and it had never really occurred to me to come here. In my experience, this is the ideal way to arrive at a place because I can’t possibly be disappointed. I am open to anything, and everything is interesting. Some of my worst travel experiences have been to places that I obsessed over before going. If I have spent years thinking about a place, it can not help but disappoint because every experience that is not over the top, is lacking in my mind. Moscow however, was a delight.
My train pulled up in the morning, too early to actually check into my AirBandB but I decided to take a taxi there anyway in the off chance I could get in. I probably could have walked since I purposely chose a place close to the train station but I still wasn’t sure of my injured foot and I had a suitcase, a bag, my purse and a camera bag so I decided to splurge (at that point I didn’t know how much of a splurge it was going to be).
Upon emerging from the train after 8 days, I was confronted by a bunch of taxi drivers offering their services, wanting to get to my lodging quickly I took one of them up on his offer. We tromped across the rough, pitted parking lot to his car and I got in. He spoke a bit of English and we chatted a little. Upon arrival, 5 minutes later (the apartment really was very close), he charged me 20 Euro! This was more than twice what I had been charged to go over an hour in Vladivostok and was waaaaaaay more that it should have been. I said no, and he locked the door so I couldn’t get out. He then proceeded to say Ma,am in a demanding way so I retorted with Sir and we did that for quite a while.
Until finally he got tired of this exchange. The price should have been just a few Euro but unfortunately my lowest bill at that point was a 10 and there was no way he was giving me change so he took the 10 unlocked the door and let me out.
Welcome to Moscow! I wasn’t really that upset though because these things do happen while traveling, it is not the first time a cab driver has ripped me off and it won’t be the last.
I got ahold of my host and she was able to let me in an hour later, I cooled my heels at the little parkette across the street and read a book. The first thing I noticed after getting in, was the amazing huge bath tub. After 10 days of not being able to bathe, I spent the whole morning in the bath tub soaping up and rinsing off, it was heaven.
Happily clean, I headed out to explore the city. I decided that I didn’t want to take any transportation other than my own 2 feet that first day and since one of those feet was not working quite properly yet, I explored the neighborhood and found a big park just around the corner. Easter season was in full swing in Russia and spring was beginning to show its face just a little. Almost everything was still brown but the snow had melted and people were in high spirits.
The next day I had one goal, to get train tickets for the next leg of my journey, Moscow to Chisinau, Moldova. I gave myself the whole day because, not knowing what I was doing, where I was going or any of the language, the probability of messing up was high. I had to get to the central train station on the other side of the city. I had Google maps and I found the subway station, figured out how to get a ticket and arrived at the platform where I encountered my first challenge, which side of the platform was going in the correct direction? All of the signs were in Cyrillic. Cyrillic is a bit of a tease, it is not as foreign looking as Japanese and some of the letters are the same as the Roman alphabet but they are pronounced differently. This meant I couldn’t really figure out what they were saying any more than I could in Japan but unlike in Japan, where they usually had Roman letter translations next to the Japanese, in Russia, you are on your own. I ended up walking up to random people, showing them my google maps directions and having them bundle me onto whatever train I was supposed to get on. Happily everyone was nice and got me on the right trains even thought we couldn’t communicate beyond that.
It was on the subway that I encountered my first happy surprise, the subway itself is a destination. Every station was unique and spectacular. There were vaulted ceilings, stunning architecture, murals, mosaics and sculptures. I couldn’t wait to arrive at the next stop to see what it had to offer. My favorite was the Revolution Square stop where every pillar had a more than life sized statue of a soldier somewhere around it brandishing a gun. It was as if there was a fierce battle going on in the station but it had been frozen and the rest of the world was just going about its business not even glancing up at it. The war among us was unacknowledged.
I saw the wall of the Kremlin
and St. Basil's Cathedral
Easter was in full swing and the eggs were ripe on the trees.
Moscow street performer
The next day was my last day and I absolutely couldn’t put off shopping any longer as people were expecting gifts so I checked out where was the best place to buy handicrafts and found an interesting looking market that was way far away. After my previous successful forays on the public transportation system I felt ready. This time it was much more challenging because not only did I have to go on the metro, I also had to figure out the bus system and change busses several times. After much marching back and forth in confusion, I managed to find the correct busses and got off at the correct stop only to walk in the wrong direction for about 45 minutes.
The directions said something about the market being in a park and I was in a park, covered in trees with a little amusement park along the way. It was beautiful and peaceful but I saw absolutely no sign of any market. Finally I gave up and retraced my steps back to the bus stop and went the other way. There it stood, like an amusement park, crazy in its exuberance. I began to wander the stalls filled with nesting dolls, felted slippers and leather goods. At first I wanted to buy everything but then the familiar shopping paralysis started to set in, there were too many things, I didn’t know what to buy. I was tempted to turn right around and march out but I needed gifts so I took a little detour through the used book stores and that calmed me a bit. There is something about books that makes me feel centered and happy, especially dusty leaning stacks of books.
Shopping round two was more successful and I was able to find a set of nesting Ataturk dolls for my father in law, a stone necklace with a kitten painted on it for my daughter and several other small things that would fit in my already overstuffed luggage. I even got into a great conversation with one of the venders about growing up in the 80’s him in the Soviet Union and me in Russia. I ended up buying a hat from one guy and his friend, a guy around my age started joking with me and wanted me to look at his stuff. I went over, he had a great sense of humor and we started talking politics because a lot of his dolls were political figures. I ended up buying an Ataturk set and a Harry Potter set. Usually once you buy something, the vendor looses interest but not this guy. He kept ignoring his other customers because we were having so much fun talking. Finally after talking for like a half an hour, I asked him his name and he tested me. He said his father was a super communist so what was his name? I ventured Lenin and he got a big smile on his face and said yes, Lenin’s first name. It was so nice to talk to him! He said he liked talking to me because my smile was real, not fake like most Americans. This struck me as interesting because I had been thinking so much about smiling in Russia. It also made me think about how we perceive things like smiles. I could see why he thinks most Americans have fake smiles but I would put it a different way. I wouldn’t say those smiles are fake but rather they are “social smiles”. By this I mean that while they don’t show happiness necessarily, and in this way are fake, they signal to the other person that we are open and can be approached without fear. Those smiles, given to strangers don’t show emotional state so much as availability. His interpretation of American smiles were that they make us untrustworthy, exactly the opposite of what is intended. This jived perfectly with my initial interpretation of the lack of smiles, that people didn’t like me.
Moscow left me wanting more, I feel like I barely scratched the surface of this fascinating city!
There are several types of ice cream Americans are familiar with: regular standard ice cream like what we would get at 31 flavors, soft serve pumped out of a machine, usually vanilla, chocolate or swirl, and if we are feeling exotic, gelato from Italy.
None of those are anything like Turkish Ice Cream (dondurma in Turkish). How different can it be you ask? Well, Turkish Ice Cream is chewy for starters. It includes two special ingredients called mastic, a resin from a tree that is a bit like gum, and sahlep flour made from orchid root. It globs together and stretches in ways you have never seen before. Venders are able to lift out a whole tub of the stuff on a stick and catch it before it stretches all the way down to the hot pavement. They play with their customers giving and taking, swirling and ducking, not unlike a cat plays with a mouse.
Crowds gather around laughing and clapping, the sale is an event, a street performance, complete with costumes. If you haven't tried Turkish ice cream yet, I recommend you come on over and join the fun!
For this particular ice cream my daughter and I headed for Istklal Caddesi, just up from Taxim Square. We were going to get the ice cream before watching a movie but discovered that the movie (Spiderman) was about to start so we put it off until after. After graciously agreeing to be my model for this post, she also grudgingly shared the ice cream with me as we headed home. We decided that it was delicious and hit the spot!
OK, so last week I finished off with myself getting on a midnight train out of Vladivostok, Russia after a day of not finding a shower and being assured that I would be able to shower on the train. This proved to be not possible as the train I got on did not, in fact, have a shower. So, the story continues...
Day 1 on the Train
On the positive side I have a whole package of wet wipes and so far I have a cabin for 4 all to myself. I am sure this is going to change because we were told the train was all booked up. Every time the train stops, which is frequently, I attempt to shift my stuff around to accommodate other people but so far I am alone. This is good since I can’t find the dohickey that goes in my headphones to connect them to my phone so I can listen to podcasts.
Another good thing is that the outlet is right outside my cabin so I can keep an eye on my stuff while it is charging. So far, aside from the no shower thing, I am super happy!
Continuing adventures of day one on the train. I got my two cabin mates today. They arrived with a bang! First a young man poked his head in and threw a duffle bag on the top bunk opposite me. He was followed by a couple drinking wine straight from the box and spilling it all over the floor. She started to come at me in Russian obviously indicating that I should move from my bottom bunk and give it to them. I started to protest but the man waved her away and said no. I then used the translator to tell her that my leg was broken and that was why I was on the train so she grabbed my ankle and my hand and did some kind of prayer over my foot taking the injury out. My leg still hurts but it was a sweet gesture. Then they spilled a bunch more wine on the carpet while I quickly scrambled to get all of my stuff off the spilling range. They then left to throw the dripping box and bag away and she never came back. I was a bit worried to see that my two new roomies were both men. Curses, why can’t I be a man, then I wouldn’t have to lay here worried that I will be attacked in my sleep.
The first few hours I was a bit standoffish. Then I decided I should probably try to connect with them better in spite of the language barrier. Both of my mates are farmers a younger one and an older one and by older I mean three years younger than I am which is just crazy. When did I become the older one? Actually I am really glad that I am not 16 right about now because I would be even more scared of being attacked in my sleep than I already am. The younger one speaks a bit of English while the older one does not. They spent the afternoon drinking 3 more boxes of wine while I read my Game of Thrones book and tried to listen to a podcast. Finally I gave up because the older guy just kept putting his hands all over my injured leg. It seems to fascinate him and he really really wants to talk to me. We reached a compromise in which he stopped touching my leg and I listen attentively to him and reply in whatever language I feel like, none of which he understands and I can’t understand a word of what he is saying but we laugh and gesture a lot. This seems to make him happy. Right now he is not happy with me because I am typing this and the younger guy has gone to sleep. This leaves him with nothing to do as he doesn’t like reading or writing and declined my invitation to watch a movie. He keeps laying down and then popping back up in the hopes that while he was laying down I suddenly became fluent in Russian. Sadly I have not.
I really hope he goes to sleep soon but I have my doubts. I think I will have one more go at watching a movie.
OK, so I find it disconcerting to have someone watch me while I am trying to watch a movie so I invited him to watch again then he watched for a while tried to grab my ass. I slapped his hand away and then he finally went to sleep. I guess that is what he was waiting around for, a clear signal that I am not interested.
Day 2 on the Train
The second day on the train has dawned and I am happy to say I am safe and sound. My bunkmate went out for another beer, I finished my movie and went to sleep. When I woke up they were both sleeping but soon woke and had some tea. They seem to have produced a tea cup out of no where, I wonder if they are available. I will have to check it out.
Seeking some alone time, I am now in the dining car. It is nice and I am the only person here at the moment. I asked about a shower again but got the same answer but she was helpful in that she suggested I pour water over my head in the bathroom. I am not sure where to get a whole bucket full of water but I will try.
The landscape continues to be brown and bare but there is more snow on the ground today. I am told we should reach Lake Baikal in 2 days time. Meanwhile, more books, podcasts and writing. I have to charge up this computer though. I wish there was a charge here in the dining car but there isn’t.
Well, we reached the lake but it was the middle of the night so I didn’t get to see it.
I was finally unable to stand it anymore and I washed my hair under the tap in the sink, now I feel a bit better but my body is beginning to get a bit ripe in spite of the wet wipe “showers” I am taking.
After taking a couple of days break I start writing again apparently on day 5
After 4 days, my cabin mates have all left. They were really kind and found me a tea cup which is proving my salvation. They also liberally shared their soviet cookie biscuits with me but refused to take any of the things I offered them. I think they were traveling for work. For me it was a lesson in trust as I am not used to sleeping in a cabin with men I don’t know and it left me feeling vulnerable the first 2 nights. The first night one of them was very drunk but the next day he was sober and he refused to look me in the eye. It was a bit unsettling but the younger one was super nice and always tried to put me at ease. By the third night I trusted them and slept much better.
Oh, I forgot to mention that on the second day they were there my younger bunkmate got pulled out by the police who were staying in a cabin at the end of the car and held for over an hour. When I expressed concern the older one assured me that it was normal. They brought him back, had him sign a paper in a bunch of places and that was that. I still don’t know why he was singled out.
And there ends my writing on the train. I spent 8 days in my little cabin. I read voraciously, slept whenever I felt like it and had lots and lots of time to just sit and think. Sometimes my thoughts were good and hopeful, other times I would worry and obsess about things in my life that bother me. my mind would circle around and around sore spots trying to find solutions or justifications for things that have no solutions or justifications. By the time I got off the train my mind and body were ready for movement. I was excited to be in Moscow!
Over a year ago I went on a fascinating journey. This week I finally put my photographs together with the writing I did on that journey so I can share it with you.
Well, because I broke my leg in Japan just 6 weeks before leaving Japan for Istanbul, I had to take the traditional land route instead of the more modern air route. Nika and Kerem on the other hand are already safely ensconced at Babaanne and Dede’s house in Istanbul as I write this.
Yesterday I took the airplane from Tokyo to Vladivostok. I know, I know I was not supposed to fly but the ferry boats were all full for the entire month of April and I figured that a three hour flight was better than an 11 hour flight. I was nervous almost the entire time since my doctor had put the fear of embolism in me. I kept fidgeting especially my injured leg which is totally not like me and I took 2 trips to the bathroom. The second one was thwarted as the guy in the front seat of the plane jumped up right before I got to his row and sprinted to the bathroom and then the captain came on to say that we were to go back to our seats for landing. I wasn’t too upset though because the main purpose of going to the bathroom was so I would have an excuse to get up and move around. I had also prepared myself with aspirin to thin my blood and compression socks to keep the swelling down.
So, I landed without embolism and proceeded to find my taxi driver. He was waiting outside with his two adorable daughters Angelina and Sasha who had made a sign with my name on it. He was a bit hard to find as he had been arranged by my Airbandb host and apparently couldn’t come in to the airport. Either that or he was late, I am not sure. He strapped his kids in and we were off. We got about half way to Vladivostok (it is about an hour outside away from the airport) when he pulled the car over ran around to the back and reprimanded the kids for something. It reminded me of the ever popular parental warning, "Don’t make me pull this car over!"
When we arrived my host popped out of the old high school where she was attending an art exhibition and gave me a big hug. Then we entered and her friends were all there offering me champaign. They seemed delighted that I would drink with them. I wasn’t actually supposed to have alcohol because it might make me dehydrated and give me an embolism but I figured, what the hell, I was on the ground again at that point. Conversation topics included “What do you think of our president?” This seemed a possibly dangerous topic so I side stepped it by saying that I did not like president Trump. One gentleman shared that he loved Arizona because of it’s open gun laws. According to him people kill people, not guns. I said that if people kill people, they should probably be kept away from guns. He didn’t agree. I think he was disappointed that I didn’t like Arizona gun laws as much as he did.
After the art exhibition there was a play rehearsal that involved my host’s son so we stuck around for another couple of hours and then caught a taxi. The driver was pretty good at speaking English and he was about my age so we had a great talk about working on boats and living in Vladivostok.
I was then escorted into a tiny but charming house with three extremely friendly cats. I gave my host and her son omiage from Japan and was so happy to see that the son who is twelve years old very carefully and meticulously opened the wrapping so as to not damage the paper. That is exactly what I would have done, so I appreciated that. After dinner, he dove into the individually wrapped cakes and decided that the sakura was the best.
I was then introduced to the toilet and I went to bed.
Then next morning Ray went off to school and Katya and I chatted over tea using Google translate. She is a fascinating person who loves art, cats, dogs and her freedom. She chooses to live in a small, very unique house rather than an apartment because she thinks it is healthier even though it means that her son is sometimes made fun of. She then decided to take me for a walk up the mountain in her back yard. This involved climbing up steep slopes with the aid of ropes and climbing through a hole in the fence. I doubted the wisdom of this as my leg is still pretty sore but I had already started so I didn’t want to be a wimp. I made it up all of the ropes only to get bloodied by a barbed wire fence I didn’t see while getting through the hole in the fence. I hope I don’t get tetanus. I think my last shot was about 5 years ago so I should be OK. Katya put a blue antibiotic on it, that stung. Now my hairline is blue. Then we went all over Vladivostok on foot. Happily she had an errand to run and sent me to the yacht club for an hour where I ordered a really cool chocolate ball and tea. They poured caramel over the chocolate melting it and revealing ice cream in the middle. It was warm and quiet and beautiful and I got to read my book for an hour.
Katya then retrieved me and we proceeded to walk to the train station so I could book my trip to Moscow for the next day. I couldn’t understand the exchange but the ticket woman kept shaking her head so it didn’t look good. Katya said that the next available seat was a week from now and I could feel my heart sinking. I had only booked Katya’s place for one more night and she was booked after that so I would have to find another place to stay. I really want to be on my way also because my leg is killing me at this point and I am really looking forward to 7 days of not walking all over hell’s half acre.
Being with someone who knows the system is a bit like being with Dumbledore however. She simply marched me out the door, across the tracks, through a gate and into another office, empty aside from one very friendly lady who proceeded to issue me a ticket for tomorrow. I am not sure why no in one place was not no in another place but I will take it! Actually I will be leaving the day after tomorrow at about one in the morning but it is calculated on Moscow time and in Moscow it will be tomorrow.
Then I thought we were going to go back home but we didn’t. Instead we climbed another mountain to get a spectacular view of the city. It was wonderful and I would have been excited to see it if my leg wasn’t hurting so much. I suggested taking a taxi home but we couldn’t get one because Katya’s phone had run out of batteries. That meant I had to walk all the way back down the mountain to find a cafe so she could plug the phone in. Walking into the cafe was like finding a mountain lodge after being lost in the snow, I sat down and put my foot up and enjoyed a hot lemonade.
The only thing I wanted more than to be in that cafe was to be laying down in bed so after a brief respite Katya loaded me into a taxi while she went off to hang some art at the exhibition. Luckily the driver found the right street. I wasn’t sure at first because it is a dirt road that you can only find after several turns but the young driver found it. He couldn’t fine the exact gate but luckily Katya had made me look at the gate before we left this morning so I could identify it and make it safely to my bed where I am writing this. Tomorrow I don’t get on the train until really late and I don’t want to walk very much so I think I am going to suggest that the big activity be trying to take a shower which according to the description on the airbandb site should be just down the street at the public pool.
So far I am finding the Russians to be standoffish with strangers but extremely friendly with me as soon as we are introduced. They generally don’t waste their smiles on people they don’t know.
OK, so because I overdid it yesterday walking from 9 am till about 7 pm my leg feels like it is on fire! I can’t wait to get on the train. I spent a good portion of the day sitting in bed reading and doing my physical therapy. I had 1 goal today and that was to take a shower, it didn’t happen. After stocking up on supplies for the train trip (I now have enough food for a small family) we headed off to find a public bath house. Unfortunately it was mens only day at the local one so Katya assured me that we would head off in the evening to one in town that she likes. We got there and it was closed. Apparently there is some kind of Easter bathing ritual that will take place the next day and they were closed getting ready for it. She assured me that I would be able to bathe on the train for 2 dollars and it would in fact save me money. This morning I got all of my bathing stuff together and was told that the shower is mythical. Wow am I going to stink by the time I get to Moscow!!
I want to share with you 3 days of memories I wrote while laying in a hospital bed in Japan but first I should give you a bit of context as to why I was laying there.
I have skied since I was 6 years old. When I click my rigid boots into the bindings on my flexible skis, they feel like an extension of my body. They allow me to fly! Now, in my 40s, I am not is as good shape as I was in high school when I raced through slalom gates to a finish line, but I am showing my daughter how to ski and it is exhilarating to see her learn how to turn and stop. She is discovering the joy of flying on snow, just like I did at her age. We are skiing in Nagano Japan, staying at a guest house in which the owner prepares us sumptuous meals and shares his experiences and space with us so graciously we feel like friends.
Towards the end of the first day, my husband urges me to try out the upper lift that we have been eyeing all day. It is unusual in that I have not seen a single person board that lift, all the chairs are parading up to the top of the mountain empty, it is like something out of a postapoctaliptic movie. Curiosity got the best of me and I climbed up on one of those empty chairs alone.
I have a great fear of heights, sometimes I dream that I am drawn to the edge of a cliff and for some reason I can't keep my balance and I fall over. These dreams always leave me panicked and sweating. I have however, never felt even a prick of this fear on a ski slope. As the chair took me further and further up the mountain, the incline became steeper and steeper, I twisted my body around to look back and saw nothing but huge expanses of air around me plunging down to the beginner ski slope which now seemed impossibly far away. Was I just down there a few minutes ago? How is it possible that it is so small now? I began to feel that familiar panic creep up my spine, I spun back around and looked at the mountain ahead of me but it was too late. I began to sweat in spite of the cold and my breath was coming in short spurts.
This is crazy, I tried to calm myself. I had been on chair lifts thousands of times, there was nothing to worry about but I couldn't shake the panic that had by now spread all the way to my fingertips.
I made it to the top of the lift but the feeling of panic was still with me and after a short traverse through the trees I came out on a slope that seemed steeper than anything I had ever been on before. I was acutely aware of the fact that there was no one else up there with me, I was all alone. I stood on the top of that slope and worst case scenarios started to run through my head, if I had an accident up here it would be a long time until anyone could help me. My husband and daughter were skiing down below and would probably start to worry but not for a while. I did have my cell phone but there wasn't any reception up that high.
All of my confidence left me and I started to side slip down that mountain. My thighs were screaming within a few minutes but I was too scared to actually ski. I side slipped all the way down, it took me forever and by the time I met up with my family, my legs were shot but I hadn't been injured so I considered it a win and we all went back to the guest house.
The next day when we arrived at the mountain, we made plans to go to an onsen (a natural hot springs where people soak, usually in beautiful, natural settings) after skiing and before catching our shinkansen (high-speed train) back to Tokyo. We packed up our suitcases and everything was ready for an efficient exit after our day on the slopes.
It started to snow as we took our first run. It was a truly beautiful place and the skiing was spectacular. My husband was super happy because he was snow boarding and the fresh powder was making it even nicer for him. My daughter and I were skiing though, and the powder was becoming difficult to push around. After lunch we took a few more runs and it started snowing even harder so my daughter and I went back to the cafeteria for some hot chocolate. We were both cold and tired so it was a welcome respite. My husband wanted to get the most possible snow boarding in so he kept at it. He found us a while later and urged us to take just a few more runs before calling it a day and heading for the much anticipated onsen.
His Enthusiasm was contagious so I rallied my energy and we headed back out. My daughter, in spite of only having been skiing for a total of about 6 days in her life, had become super speedy. I struggled to keep up with her but I wanted to be there for her if she fell so I pushed myself. I was after all on a beginner slope but as I went into a turn I felt my ski hit something under all of that fresh powder and I went down. My body flipped over itself, I felt myself become airborne and I came down with all of my weight on my right foot.
I was laying face down in the snow crying and screaming when my husband who had seen everything from further up the slope got to me. I knew my leg was broken even though I had never broken a bone like that before. I didn't know which bone, I didn't know where but I knew it was broken.
Ski patrol came, they tried to talk to me but I don't speak very much Japanese on the best of days and this wasn't one of those. They took my ski off, bundled me up, and put me on a sled. I had never been on a sled and I remember thinking that it must be scary on one of those things with no control over what was happening. I squeezed my eyes shut. I don't remember the ride at all.
The next thing I knew I was in the medical building my daughter was holding my hand and crying. She had never seen me hurt before and it was quite traumatic for her. She pulled herself together though and translated for me while they took my boot off.
Our host at the guest house came right out and drove me to the local clinic where they took an x-ray and declared that my fibula was broken (this turned out to be wrong, it was my tibia), put a cast on me, and sent me on my way. I was wheeled through the train station in a wheel chair and deposited on my seat for the long ride home, where my dear friend was waiting for me with a set of crutches.
A few days later I was in the hospital waiting for surgery to screw my bone back together. As I lay there, I wrote.
I checked in with Kerem and we had some trouble finding the right room. We had to go up and down the elevator because we were in the wrong building but once we got there things went more smoothly. They put me in a private room but when we requested the public room, they were able to accommodate within the hour. My new space is a bit like a room but with pink curtains instead of walls. I am in the space nearest to the door and there are 5 other people here with me. This is good and bad because I am close to the bathroom but I am far away from the window. I wouldn’t be able to pick my roommates out of a line up because we are all curtained off from each other so as to preserve our privacy. The curtains change from pink to a kind of net about 2 thirds the way up so that the florescent light illuminates my room quite brightly. It is lights out at 10:00 and lights on at 7:00. my bed is great, I have controls that I can use to elevate and lower different parts of my body and a nice Japanese pillow made of little plastic beads. The pillow is not soft but it does mold into shapes very nicely. As I type this my head is propped up well and it doesn’t get hot like other pillows do. I also love the table that rolls right up to the bed so I can type this with ease.
“Hi, my name is Erika.” my nurse introduced herself in beautiful English. This was great as my Japanese is sadly lacking even after being her for over three years. It turns out she is the head nurse and she was in need of a change of pace so she told everyone that she was going to devote herself to me for a few hours and she took me around the hospital in a wheelchair to get my various tests. We had a great time chatting in between blowing into tubes, getting x-rayed and CT scanned. Then it was back to my “room” where I spent the rest of the afternoon reading and writing.
In the evening the lights went out abruptly at 10 and I had to leave a chapter unfinished. I was strangely not sleepy but my companion across the curtain was and I was delighted to hear her snore. My husband is always complaining about my snoring so it was a relief to hear that I would not be the only one disturbing the absolute silence that reigns in this room. I have rarely had the pleasure of spending time with 5 other people who make no noise at all.
As people began to drift off they started farting. I wonder if I fart as I am falling asleep. I found it greatly amusing. The absolute silence only highlighted all of the little noises bodies make as they relax.
Lights on at seven o’clock!! I wasn’t quite prepared for this, but so it was, so after trying to hide from that bright florescent light, the long ones you know, that take up several feet of ceiling space, I sat up and was just about to grab my crutches to hit the restroom when my breakfast suddenly appeared so I held it, ate my breakfast and then visited the privy. Then came the long wait for a shower. I considered putting my bra on and maybe even getting dressed but I smelled so bad I didn’t want to sully my other clothes so I waited. I had to wait a long time because even though they made a special effort to schedule my bathing time as 12:30, I think they forgot. At 1:00 I called a nurse and asked her, via my smart phone translation, if my shower time was coming. That prompted them to usher me into the bathroom post haste. I had no idea what to expect but what I found was a chair with a hole in the middle so the water could drain through and a sparkling beautiful empty tub. The chair was for me. My leg, bagged in plastic was safe from the water. They told me they would come back for me in 10 minutes. I finished early and had nothing to do but look longingly at the tub. The basket on the rim held a sponge and a spray bottle that contained something orange. The spray part on the top was the exact color of a rubber ducky.
Then it was time for physical therapy. A wonderful woman named Tomo showed me how to lift my leg so the muscles wouldn’t waste away. I don’t know why I hadn’t been doing them before since they really aren’t hard and even with a broken bone, they are totally doable. I guess I had given my entire leg a pass to do nothing at all since the glute muscle had seized up that first day after the break when I had to sit in a hospital waiting room for 6 hours.
Now I am waiting for my family to arrive or Etsuko to arrive so they can explain anesthesia to me. I think I may prefer not to know since it just makes me feel kind of nauseous whenever they show me what my bones look like or what they want to do to me or what my risks are. I guess I should want to know but I don’t really think I have a choice in all of this. I want to walk again.
I woke up nervous. It was the day of the surgery. I knew it was coming at 3:00 so from the moment the lights snapped on at 6 am (they were early today) I was on alert. They came for me at about 10 am with the needle for my arm. The young man, who I can only assume was a doctor in training, looked in vein for my vein. He couldn’t really see it I could tell but took a stab at it anyway. He fished around in there for a while while I closed my eyes and bit the index finger of my other hand. Finally he decided to give up on that particular site and try again. Luckily his second try was more successful and I had an IV drip. This made it so that I had no choice but to take in liquids but it was much more difficult to go to the bathroom as I couldn’t use crutches and hold onto the rolling drip at the same time. Now I needed to call a nurse to wheel me in a wheelchair every time I needed to relieve myself.
My writing ends there. The following days were too painful for me even to consider writing or reading and I just lay there trying unsuccessfully to will the pain away. I remember being taken to the operating theater and laying on the table looking up at at least 5 male faces looking down at me. They were all happy and relaxed, I was trying not to have a panic attack. I had never been under general anesthesia before. I focused on observing the myriad of lights pointing down in my directions, the shine on the stainless steel. I didn't want to make my surgeon feel bad by showing too much anxiety.
Someone put a mask on my face and I faded out for what seemed like a split second before I was being shaken awake. I opened my eyes and a searing pain in my ankle started. I was groggy and trying not to cry, surely the pain must be just temporary until the pain killer kicked in. I was wheeled back to my bed with the pink curtains where I tried to sleep but the pain didn't abate.
A while later, I have no idea how long, the surgeon came to talk to me. He was super happy and proud of his work. He showed me the x-rays but I was having trouble showing how much I appreciated his work through the haze of anesthesia and pain. I tried to smile but I don't think he was convinced so he left saying he would be back later.
I buzzed the nurse to ask for a pain killer and she gave me a pill. I took it but it didn't seem to have any effect. This was repeated every few hours for a couple of days and I was despairing of ever being out of pain. When one of the nurses suggested that I might take a different kind of pain killer but, she warned, it was a suppository. She was quite emphatic about this and repeated it several times, clearly expecting me to turn it down. I didn't! The resulting relief was reminiscent of when, after 30 or so hours of labour, I asked for an epidural. I could think again, suddenly life seemed worth living again. It was lovely. Shortly thereafter I was sent home to convalesce.
A few weeks later, after being cleared to walk, I headed off to Vladivostok to take the Siberian Express all the way across Russia but that is a story for a different post.
Spring is just coming to a close and the flowers are still blooming. In spite of myself, I keep taking pictures of them, maybe so I can linger in their presence just a few moments longer.
Red: Poppies - delicate, bloody reminders of disruption
A few years ago while reading Birds Without Wings, one of my favorite books about Turkey, I noticed a lot of references to poppies and I began to wonder what they symbolized. When I looked it up I learned that poppies represent World War I. Poppies grow on earth that has been disturbed and they grow blood red. Turkey was on the losing side of that war when it was still the Ottoman Empire. After WWI the empire was broken apart and Turkey took on the shape it is today when the victors dictated what the world would look like, at least for a while. The newly formed nation, defining itself, exchanged much of its population with neighboring Greece causing more disruption. The poppies come back every year; the people never did.
Pink: Cherry Blossoms - Ephemeral Overwhelm
“the cherry blossom represents the fragility and the beauty of life. It's a reminder that life is almost overwhelmingly beautiful but that it is also tragically short.” - Homar0 Cantu (chef)
Every year, sometime in early spring, Japan is washed over by a tide of pink. It starts in the warmer south and sweeps its way north. People stop what they are doing, companies let their employees take a break to go outside, and everyone enjoys Hanami (cherry blossom parties under the trees). Advanced scouts are sent out to the parks in Tokyo to stake out good spots beneath the pink to lay out blankets while others gather the food and drink. The dates are not fixed, they depend on nature, but it happens every year. I left Japan during Hanami last year, and the contrast between cold, brown Russia and warm, pink Japan could not have been more marked.
Purple: Tulip - Of Love and Islam
My grandmother was from Holland and tulips held a special place in her heart. I always assumed that they came from Holland because they are so iconic there. Who hasn't seen the Dutch fields, bright colors stretching to the horizon? It wasn’t until I moved to Turkey 18 years ago that I was disabused of that notion. Tulips were actually brought to Holland from Turkey in the 16th century. In Turkey, the tulip (or lale), represents Islam and can be found on ceramics and ebru (an art form in which paint is applied to the surface of a viscous liquid and lifted off with paper). They also have many other meanings depending on their color. The purple ones in this photograph represent royalty.
Red, White and Green: Geraniums Against White Walls
On my way to drop my daughter off at school each morning I am greeted by striking pink and red geraniums agains white walls. I often stop to admire them and chat with the ladies who carefully tend them so we all can enjoy our trips through the winding streets. Both the white paint and the bright flowers keep the houses cool in the hot Spanish summers. They are hardy and easy to grow, bright, cheerful and for me, they symbolize Andalusia.
After years of begging, I finally let my daughter pick out a tiny kitten when we moved to Spain. Previously we were living in Japan and our apartment didn’t allow pets. This meant that we had to leave our beloved cat Hisser (who was born under our bed just weeks before I married my husband) with my parents in Arizona and no pets for my daughter. Our apartment in Spain however, happily allows pets so, welcome Thimble!
For the 4 years we lived in Japan and were unable to have pets, I was constantly amazed and amused by the differences I saw between how pets are viewed and cared for in Japan and how I am used to caring for them in the United States.
Dogs around Tokyo
We were fortunate to live near one of the most beautiful parks in Tokyo, Ueno Park. It took me about 20 minutes to walk there at a good clip and many weekends would find me strolling through its many cherry trees and lotus ponds. I was not alone, many many people frequent this park and often with their dogs. People in Japan often take their dogs on walks in strollers and sometimes backpacks just as we do in the United States with children. They often also accessorize their dogs.
Japan Loves Cats!
People in Japan love cats! There are cat statues, toys, paintings etc. everywhere and on the rare occasion you actually get to see a cat on the street there are often many people gathered around it taking pictures.
Since many people are unable to own cats, they have cat cafes where people can go and spend time with them. I visited a couple of cat cafes. Once with my daughter because she missed having a pet so much I hoped it would help. It didn’t, they have very strict rules at the cat cafes, no picking up the cats, no interaction with the cats unless they come up to you. This means patrons grab kitty toys and try to lure them over. Unfortunately, the cats, being cats, are often aloof. There are tons of people trooping through each day and they don’t know you so it is understandable that they don’t really want to sit on your lap. They aren’t dogs after all!
More Fascinating Things Pertaining to Dogs and Cats in Japan