Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Bought a mattress...

Bought a mattress,
Bought a mattress,
Bought a mattress last night.
Last night I bought a mattress,
I bought a mattress last night.

It was springy,
It was lumpy,
It was creaky last night.
The mattress was lumpy, springy, creaky,
Lumpy, springy last night.

Slept on it anyway,
Slept on it anyway,
Slept on it anyway last night.
Last night I slept on it anyway,
Slept on it anyway last night.

Was really happy,
Was really happy,
Was really happy last night.
Last night I was happy I bought a mattress,
I bought a mattress last night.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


I'm shocked. I am totally shocked that I actually have the keys to my shocking green house.

As of this weekend, I have the keys and the majority of my important personal items have been moved into a shocking green-colored, 5 story house festooned with windows on the edge of the market, about two blocks away from my office. I'm not sure what is more shocking: the color, the number of stories and rooms, the number of windows, or the fact that I am actually finally inside the house.

Moving out of the office has been and (it seems) will continue to be a long and arduous process. When I first accepted the post in Vietnam, it was with the understanding that while I would have to live inside the office for the first few months, as soon as the new project budget was approved and implemented, I'd bet out of the office and into a private house. We started looking almost as soon as I arrived, and the first place I looked at was the first place I liked. We made a verbal agreement with the owner to come back in June. Then things went downhill.

No ugly details here, but things on both sides got stretched and stretched and stretched. Finally we agreed that when I returned from the US, I would move in (no sense in moving and paying for a month of rent when I wouldn't be there to enjoy it). Well, of course, that became the week after I returned. Then the week after that. Then they were doing official government paperwork, so it wouldn't be that week. Then I was in Hanoi. I spent several weeks packing and half unpacking and trying to find bags to take to Hanoi and keep packed, in a constant state of moving limbo.

Finally it was agreed that Saturday morning at 9 o'clock would be the time. Nine AM sharp my translator showed up as I hauled down the last big bag from my fifth floor room to the kitchen. We headed off only to meet my chief negotiator and soon-to-be neighbor, my head counselor coming to head us off. Sorry, she said, the family wasn't ready – time had been changed to two o'clock that afternoon.

Needless to say I wasn't crazy happy about that idea. But I suggested we go to talk to the landlady and at least get the contract signed. We found her hanging out in her pharmacy shop while her husband drank beer across the street, with pieces of beds and a few baskets of things sitting out on their steps. We sat down and started chatting. Then we said we understood they weren't quite ready and that they would need until 2 PM. She said, well, no, actually, 4 PM would be a better time for her.

Well, that's when I put my foot down. No more delays. I have to work and at this rate they're already getting almost 10 days bonus on the contract from our intended move-in date and that Saturday. Then she proceeded to tell me that there was going to be an issue with sharing the water meter with the house next door. The Landlady was inspired to drag her husband off his butt and put him to more semi-productive activity. And at least I had something to do with my spare time – change the contract to manage the water issue. So, there I was, back in my room, staring at the ceiling and waiting for two o'clock to come.

2 PM found the family frantically dragging things out of the house, people frantically running up and down the stairs and leaving heaps of resurrected detritus in their wake. We pulled up in our borrowed government pickup full of my bags and boxes and pedi-cab with the refrigerator transported two whole blocks from the office. So now we had people pulling bits and pieces out while my stuff was stuffed on in. All around the three or four men (including the husband) enjoying afternoon refreshment at the dining room table.

While my things were piled in the entry way, we made the tour of the facilities recording furnishings that would be left for my use while my dear head counselor scraped 10 years worth of grease build-up off the counters and glass cabinets and ventilator hood. And I started making mental calculations of how many hours and millions of Dong it would take to make the place livable. As we came down we were both more exhausted – her for the work already done, me for the work that was still to come.

Finally they were out – and I was off with my translator to purchase an all-important stove and gas bottle and lock for the gate, leaving one helpful staff person to watch over the house until we could get back and secure it.

We returned to find that some improvement had been made in the kitchen area – and that apparently I had inherited a Cheers. There, taking all eight seats at the dining room table was the local happy hour crowd, already well-ensconced with their beers and cigarettes.

Sigh, first thing to make clear – my house was no longer in possession of a liquor license, and Cheers was going to have to move premises. Sorry guys.

So, finally at 5 pm I said good-bye to the last of my helpful neighbors, staff and friends, their husbands and in-laws, and turned to look at the wreck was renting.

I managed to mop down the bedroom floor before 8 pm that night, but as I was without a mattress, I have yet to spend a night in my new house. So, while I have the keys and today I managed to make serious headway into bringing the house closer to health code, it might be a few nights before I actually sleep there. Still, it is nice having a place that I might escape to and know that it is my own territory. Now that Cheers has been relocated, I will be assured of nobody wandering around without my explicit invitation.

Strange, but this assured privacy is also bringing me closer to the community. I look forward to having more stories about Vietnam and Vietnamese people to post very, very soon!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Praying at Hanoi’s St. Joseph’s Cathedral

About 7% of the Vietnamese population are officially registered as Catholics. While Catholicism and other religions are strictly controlled by the central government, Catholicism is certainly the most obvious influence on Vietnamese religious life after Buddhism. Churches, while nowhere near as plentiful as in Madagascar, sprout from surprising places in a fairly large number of communities. Some were originally built for "the French and holiday makers," but today you would be hard-pressed to find a church that caters only to foreigners or, indeed, even celebrates Mass in a language other than Vietnamese.

St. Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi is the largest congregation in Hanoi and the north of Vietnam. The church itself stands in a largish courtyard at the T intersection of a couple of well-appointed streets full of up-scale boutiques, delis and caf├ęs deep in the city's Old Quarter. The building towers over the surrounding one-story shops and looms mysteriously through the trees until you break out into the shadow of the stark grey gothic towers. After the colors, bustling sounds and woody environs of the tourist-filled streets of the Old Quarter, the Cathedral itself stands as an almost ghostly anomaly, like black-and-white scene lost and wandering through a modern-day action-packed film.

Before Mass time the courtyard in front of the church is packed with a procession of motorbikes, bicycle cabs and old women waiting at the riot fencing that prevents the crowds from climbing the long flight of steps to the two-story wooden doors between Mass times. At precisely 15 minutes before the hour of Mass, the wood doors are opened and the moveable gates unlocked to allow the masses inwards. First in are the few beggars the city of Hanoi hosts, who sit on the steps begging alms from the church goers. Next are the members of the Rosary society, who will race their way through a Rosary in the few minutes allotted to them before the clockwork priests begin their inward march. Mixed in the rest are the other faithful and a fair number of tourists, who, not seeing the doors open at any other time boldly take the opportunity to scuttle about looking at the architecture and icons – slightly disappointing I am sure after a general anticipation that is bound to build up if one is kept away for so long.

The inside of the church is frankly reminiscent of European-style church buildings with impossibly tall white columns meet in arches in a Mary's-robe blue sky-ceiling painted above. The impression is of well-ordered clouds in a peaceful firmament, supported below by a lively gold-gilt altarpiece backdrop. The impression is not nearly so foreign as in Thailand where gaudy Buddhist traditions and unabashedly mixed into all church decorations until the outward appearance of the religions melts together into an indistinguishable mix. Instead, it resembles closely the St. Joseph's of my childhood in my grandparent's home in Marshfield, Wisconsin. Tall red-and-gold columns housing a few statues of Saints rise to meet giant stained-glass windows. To ensure full appreciation of the craftsmanship of the windows during evening services, the tall peaked windows are lined with fluorescent bulbs lit with a flick of a switch about 5 minutes before Mass begins. The fireworks-like appearance of the pictures in the windows as the bulbs sputter to life in a lively and random manner is one of highlights of the pre-Mass ceremony.

The other highlight, which is a strong reminder of the foreignness of the locale, is the Rosary society itself. Beginning as soon as the first leader can whisk into her seat after the doors are opened, the members take up a chant that immediately calls to mind the deeply ingrained Buddhist roots of the region, the juxtaposition of which with the generally European surroundings can only be described as "exotic." The droning monotone continues up and even into the opening announcements made by an adjunct priest in the minutes before Mass actually gets underway.

For being a cathedral, I don't find the internal appropriations of the church to be immediately impressive. Even in size, I believe it is only about ¼ larger than my grandparents' church, and the new St. Peter's church at full capacity probably seats more (although this church also utilizes the miniature stools so favored by street-food vendors and the large area on top of the steps outside the doors to accommodate overflow crowds). The interior beneath the crowning blue-and-white is a flaking, faded spring-green-gone-puce color, and most of the tiles on the floor are chipped and scraped. There really is little to make you rejoice in the beauty and majesty of the building, and like many Asian buildings, it is generally overstuffed with miss-matched pictures, statues and icons.

Yet, some great care has been taken to the technological needs of the building. Lighting, while almost entirely done in the ubiquitous fluorescent strip-bulbs, is hung so unobtrusively as to cast as warm a glow as fluorescent lighting is capable of. Fans are located on each angle of the mighty columns and the controls are available to the worshipers themselves to adjust to maximum comfort. The pews are basic utilitarian as are found widely in developing countries and more generally outside of the US (where seats are to be found at all), but the sound system is probably the most remarkable feature in the whole building. With a surprising no-costs-are-too-much attitude, somebody wisely chose to invest in a Bose sound system, and then found a true professional to complete the installation. The result is an almost miraculous clarity of sound throughout the entire interior. I found myself sitting directly beneath one speaker but quickly discovered that it was no louder or more distorted than sitting at the furthest back corner of the church. Speakers are distributed evenly throughout, completely eliminating the delay that can be so deadly to a choir leading worshipers and the priest himself in signing from a choir loft. The sound is completely balanced; the priest, lector nor musicians are guilty of drowning out the rest.

The video system is also to be lauded. I discovered this when I came to a Pentecost celebration only to be completely bowled over at the immensity of the production. Needless to say, arriving 5 minutes before Mass began (and 25 minutes into pre-Mass spectacle), I and more than 150 others didn't chance a seat inside. Nothing to fear – an internally mounted camera broadcast live to an LCD project set up to project onto a large screen outside on the steps. The sound system also has external components, making it just as easy to see and hear as if we'd been sitting in the front row. Possibly better than three quarters of those crammed inside (and with better air, despite all the fans, I am sure).

The choir is an odd assortment of chanters and melodious singers. The pianists and organists have always been top notch when I was there (refreshingly not surprising in a city that appreciates music and culture). The music is nothing familiar, and incorporates an almost chant-like drone into most of the parts, giving the experience another shot of exoticism.

The service itself runs almost militantly like clockwork, with the constant quarter-hour chiming from the towering steeples above to remind us exactly what point we should be at. The procession is accompanied by the chiming of the hour, readings, homily and prayers are spoken with a clarity that scoffs at the need for a superb sound system, and the sending forth and closing song are chanted above the tolling of one hour more. There is a definite flow in which all celebrants are expected to participate fully.

The exodus from the church at the end of service is almost another shock of time-and-place, whether day or night. The crowds bottle neck at the colossal double doors and swarm around the two tiny holy water fonts almost hidden behind them on the far edges of the vestibule. Then you are disgorged onto blanketing humidity on the top steps, leaving you to feel like a rock star on stage with the adoring crowds of taxis, motorbikes and pedi-cabs, Hanoi's begging poor, people waiting to retrieve worshiping relatives, popcorn and streetfood vendors, helium balloon sellers, curious tourists and other opportunists staring up at you and your fellow humanity so recently sanctified.

As you make your way down and out through the protective fencing, you know you are leaving a place of (only occasional) sanctuary, and reentering the mad world of Old Quarter Hanoi.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Racing Time Back Around the Globe

First, let me take this moment to say to all of you that I had a chance to see in the US – it was WONDERFUL to meet up with you again. Thank you for your hospitality, your conversation, your re-arranging of schedules, and for picking up right where we left off, making me feel as though no time has passed since we saw each other last. It is the greatest blessing to know that I am surrounded by friends, near and far, and to know that I can count on you whenever I may wander into your neighbourhoods. And all of you may be assured of a warm welcome should you ever wander to where I may be.

To all of those that I didn’t have the chance to see on this trip – I hope and pray that the next trip will be the one for you. There are still so many stories to share and lives to be updated on, meals to be eaten and walks to be taken – my blessings abound and my cup overfloweth.

In a brief summary of the blessings of this last trip: I spent my first days/nights with my grandparents and aunt and uncle over Labor Day. That time passed all too quickly, then it was back for the mandatory doctor’s and dentist appointments. My nurse practitioner, though he tried, could find absolutely nothing wrong with me and pronounced me again healthy as a horse, and the dentist could only pin me down to seal a couple of teeth that were threatening future difficulties (hah, take that PC Mada Adventist Dentist – here they only seal those teeth you were threatening to drill for no good reason! Glad I stopped your advances). That sent me on my way to Washington, D.C., where I was received at the US Meva in the Hood of Little Tana and was entertained in full Mada style with a constant flow of new PC faces, food, conversation and recreational opportunities.

Next to Minnesota and some quality time with my college roommate of four years. Kristi has received me as a guest almost every year since our college days and I hope we can continue the ritual of her visiting me in every place that I live. Then it was down into Iowa to see a high school classmate and her family, then to more college friends, two of which have the audacity to get married just after I returned to Vietnam. Best wishes Sarah and Jon – my visit leaves me in no doubt of your future happiness together, especially with good mentors like Amy and Peter close by. All of the couples I visited on my trip demonstrate only the best of what there is to be had in committed relationships – may you long be role models to the world. As with the next pair that I met with – who I hadn’t seen since college or since their marriage. How lucky you all are!

Then it was back up to Decorah for a quick breeze through the ole alma mater grounds and to grab my sister from her weekend army reserves drill and head back north. We stopped over at her new grad school accommodations for the night before going home. She made only a brief stop-off to pick up the loveable monster she calls a dog (but resembles more of a pony), so most of the time I had to spend with her was in the car. Then I was off to catch up with the local crowd.

I made some local excursions to see a variety of local friends, was invited to give a couple of presentations about Vietnam, and celebrated my 10 year class reunion at a local restaurant. I even managed to find some time to enjoy picking apples, making pies and to enjoy the extraordinary fall colors. It seems I chose the perfect time to be home this year. Autumn is undoubtedly my favorite time of year, and for the first time in 3 years, I had the chance to enjoy the fruits of the season (and I’ve made it back to Vietnam in plenty of time to enjoy a second fall here…whenever it should choose to arrive).

The next week our home was invaded by my father’s family celebrating the marriage of my oldest cousin. My cousin and her new husband, who were married in their home in the Alaska bush in early August, made the grand tour of the lower 48, with the last stopover being here. Their arrival set off a whole stream of family events, not the least of which was the opportunity to have a final memorial for my grandmother who went to her rest in February. In a rare even, most of our family and close friends were gathered together in my grandparents’ favorite place during their lifetimes to enjoy the stillness and beauty of nature, to enjoy excellent food and companionship, and to share our favorite memories and cherished family stories that will remain forever a part of the family oral history.

Family time in this journey was all too short as I didn’t have the opportunity to reconnect with cousins on my mother’s side or spend more time with that family. There were also other friends that I didn’t see and can only hope to see in future travels home. My life is simply too large to piece into a single month, and for that I am grateful. But I am also grateful that there was time for silence, time for reflection, and time for future planning – something that all too often gets shoved aside or is impossible to find in my daily life over here. And so, inevitably, the first of October came and found me waiting for (a yet-again delayed) airplane that would take me on the first leg of a journey halfway around the world.

But my story doesn’t quite stop there. I also had the chance to stay for two nights in Japan with a friend, formerly an intern with ADRA in Vietnam, now an employee of ADRA Japan. She met me at Tokyo Narita airport, helped me negotiate the entirely too-complex public transportation system into Tokyo where I stayed with her family in the heart of the city. We went to museums and other local sights, we ate Japanese food, and of course visited the ADRA Japan offices. Her mother overflowed with kindness, giving me not only the best of her local preparations, but also yogurt starter from the Caspian Sea that her family has grown and cultured to carry to Vietnam. They took me into the strangest of venues for dinner – we tromped through Tokyo’s famous fish market until we came upon a door half-hidden behind some industrial piping and packing equipment where we entered a restaurant serving some of the best (and obviously freshest) sushi and sashimi on earth! They treated me as a guest of honor as we enjoyed some of Japans famous oddities and fish with names that simply don’t translate into English. Then they took me, full and half nodding-off, on a great night tour of Tokyo.

The next day was my final return to Vietnam. I experienced only kindness and understanding throughout my entire journey from airlines and immigrations, and have no complaints about anything except the general culture shock of being back in a place where cleanliness is not necessarily considered an indication of godliness. Today I am home, safe and sound, but already there is a wish for the peace of a northern Wisconsin morning and for the orderliness of a well-observed road system. It’s good to see how much of the language I still remember after a month of disuse, and I am excited to see that they have painted the new hotel across from my office a nice, sunny yellow-orange that brings sunshine into my office and bedroom window even on the dreariest of days (and yesterday was quite dreary). Still, it’s difficult to leave so many enjoyable things behind and face down a year’s worth of work ahead. But I have a month of beautiful memories to hold on to and to ration out over the next year. Thank you and I love you all.