Saturday, August 16, 2008


I'm still talking about our plants. We hadn't already gotten any houseplants because shopping's difficult, here. The plant stores are out there, sure, many near the bridge to District Two. But the rigmarole of finding them, judging the health and value of their products and negotiating a price--then securing a cyclo driver to peddle the heavy things back to our apartment--was daunting enough to postpone. Recently several of our friends moved out of town in the first really big personnel rotation since we arrived in Vietnam. One of our departing friends had a house full of really large plants. She'd already promised a couple of them to someone else, but I got the balance. As a matter of fact, on the day movers packed up all her stuff, I got them all. Since she lived on the very next floor down, it was easy to have the movers just haul her plants upstairs to our apartment. This was two days before we left town on a four-day trip to Dalat. I discovered two hundred pounds of potted plants in the hallway first thing after waking up that day: five-foot corn plants, green tropical things with large variegated leaves, maybe a miniature rubber tree? I hauled them all into the apartment first thing. Some of them were too heavy to lift, so I slid them along the floor watching the carpet ripple under the weight. Our living room has jungled overnight. It looks like Where the Wild Things Are: here's the couch and bookshelves, there's the carpet and the Amazon. It sure didn't take much to provide dense foliage in this apartment. My job is to keep the rainforest alive and well until maybe September 2009, when our own movers will drop them off on another floor. [Cavin]

Friday, August 15, 2008


Two weeks ago we finally got some plants. Buying plants is just one in a long list of paradoxes we strive to accomplish to keep us sane. Not that buying a plant is a paradox in itself, of course. Buying a plant is a nice way to beautify the home, regulate its atmosphere, and add a muddy, character-building daily routine to whatever else is going on. What is important here, to us, is the touch of life plants can add to the soulless and sharper image of our frequent corporate housing. We were once told the best thing to do when moving around every other year was to make each new house look as much like the last ones as possible--fooling the subconscious into believing the contents of these places constitute some kind of roots. Accordingly, we try to display our decorations in every house (three so far) by putting the same things in similar locations. This makes those locations seem more alike. Therefore, the newness of a place stops at the front door--or at least that's the theory. Plants are a part of this: we like to look around and see plants. We did it before. The paradox comes here: given the relatively universal restrictions on importing agricultural specimens, we have to lose these plants every single time we move away again. So we get them to make our house feel like our home, we nurture them for twenty months or so, and then we have to find a home for them. All so we can start the cycle again somewhere else (where? In Belgrade? Maybe Sarajevo?). It can be an emotionally abusive system for me, nursing little plants into big ones only to start again in the next place. Apparently it keeps me sane. [Cavin]

Thursday, August 14, 2008


I looked outside Tuesday afternoon to see something burning on the horizon. Smoke billowed from the District Four docks, snaking into the wind above the skyline and mingling with the ever-present monsoon. It was the thick blue-gray of a thunderhead in the humid distance. I watched the plume for a long time. It reminded me of war coverage: distant photos of conflict followed by close-up ramifications. It made me think of Georgia. Under a EU-brokered ceasefire, Russian troops pulled out of Gori today,* handing the battlefield back over to returning law enforcement officers and those who wish to photograph ramifications. The Russian army is still encamped around the countryside. It occupied the city as part of a push to liberate the separatist enclave of South Ossetia, a disputed region nonetheless located within the political frontiers of an ex-Soviet sovereignty. Gori is well outside this disputed zone. As is Georgia's capital Tbilisi, the target of several Russian bombs. It’s all pretty ironic: Russia feels it has the ethical advantage, but in light of Chechnya that's another way of saying Russia feels the ethical right to act contradictorily in regarding territorial interests. Ah, the nineteenth century--how we'd nearly forgotten ye. Riding Tuesday's train of thought: did you know that Sunshine and I were entertaining the idea of applying for a job in Tbilisi? Initially this seemed to have been quashed by the Russians. But this problem will stabilize into a contained simmer, a cold war if you will, before we’d get there. Aren't we entertaining the thought of working in Kosovo? It's either the world's newest country or a separatist Albanian enclave of Serbia, depending on who you talk to. Someday maybe even South Ossetia will have its very own positions to apply for, smoke on the horizon notwithstanding. [Cavin]

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I haven't been watching the Olympics. We tuned-in last Saturday to no avail. I was hoping that, being so nearby, continuous Asian coverage might allow me access to those events most frequently ignored by big network TV back home--like shooting, judo, and fencing. Really, US network television, do you actually think viewers prefer watching people running around an oval? I would rather watch a swordfight. So I tried; Women's Sabre was scheduled all day Saturday. But Vietnamese television is often wonky, and we were unable to find any Olympics coverage that day. It's normal: sometimes scheduled entertainment events, even nationally televised ones, don't actually end up on TV. We've anticipated live programming before, only to watch it go dark after fifteen minutes and be replaced by some dubbed soap opera in progress. The Olympics aren't much of a loss, really. I remember being excited about them when I was a kid, when they only happened every four years. Back then, the rampant and jingoistic politicizing didn't seem so insufferable; but that's only because I was still a kid. The jingoism has always been, at best, insufferable. This year, China is using this event to affect a posture of benevolence while sweeping many realities under its exportable carpets. The world has taken a lazy stab at protesting Chinese social transgressions and geopolitical avarice by protesting the Olympics themselves. While I write this, the guys who work in our apartment building's lounge are cheering for some very small women lifting very large barbells--and it's pretty infectious, I'll admit. But on another channel, CNN is reporting the advancing Russian invasion of Georgia, a reciprocal aggression in the South Ossetian tug-of-war, a long-awaited outburst which no doubt waited for the world's attention to focus on people running around an oval. [Cavin]

Monday, August 11, 2008


I started trying to tell a story yesterday but then wildly digressed. I'll try again: Friday evening Sunshine was doing important job-related stuff so I was on my own for dinner. Often, I take these opportunities to further explore the row of Japanese restaurants along Lê Thánh Tôn Street near the Sài Gòn River. But I'd already done that--she'd also worked late on Thursday. Many of the places I used to go without her have closed down. That's the subject of yesterday's digression. But Friday I decided to eat at Au Parc again. Au Parc is a wonderful place about three blocks from our house. I mention it a lot. If I seem a little ho-hum about being there again Friday night, well it's just because I eat there about three times a week. I start to feel guilty I'm not trying new things more often. But dinner there is always so super. Lately, one of the waiters has adopted me as an unofficial English language tutor. Maybe that’s going too far. This only started because he'd made errors in his workbook. He'd discovered the right answers already, he just needed to know why there were right. He questioned me for about twenty minutes before taking my order. His English Language exam is coming up soon. Since then, he's always got a couple questions handy whenever I arrive. But I'm not a very good unofficial English Language tutor. Friday, when talking about the book I was reading--Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories--I tried to explain what fables were. He asked if they were like metallurgy stories. How dumb am I? He actually had to type something into his mobile phone translator before I understood. Yes, I told him, like mythology--only about animals instead of gods. [Cavin]

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Friday evening Sunshine was doing important job-related stuff so I was on my own for dinner. I used to go to the restaurant down the road called Bún Việt (and later Deli Saigon) on those nights. It was one of my favorites. I'd go there when Sunshine worked because she didn't love it as much. Then for some reason, without notice, Bún Việt closed. This happened just before I flew to the states in April. A new place cropped up in the same spot by the time I'd flown back again. I'm not so interested in the new place. These mysterious closings happen all the time. Favorite places like the Vietnamese restaurant Miss Kim, or pan-Asian Green Chili, or the MGM coffee shop, have all disappeared. Some of these have been replaced with new restaurants, others are just cavernous and cluttered gaps where buildings used to be. Luna D'Autunno, our first local Italian restaurant, and my favorite, closed to remodel months ago. By now I'm no longer really banking on their eventual return. At the Indian restaurant Alibaba, also my favorite, the manager informed us personally one night that the restaurant was relocating. We were given their new address on new business cards, a map on the back and everything. But no restaurant has ever opened on the indicated corner. It's all very strange. I need to remember that this happens all the time. The first two restaurants we ever tried to find in our neighborhood, based on high recommendations from our guidebook, had mysteriously disappeared by the time we'd moved in (one, the Indian restaurant Tandoor, merely moved--we did finally find that one). Yeah, so places change. It's just a side-effect of actually living here that we can register, and become disappointed by, these normal cycles. [Cavin]