march, 2004

Sat Mar 6 18:20:59 EST 2004

Surveying the ends of the daylight around me, I find a ginger cake, just taken out of the oven, its sour cream measure rounded out by yogurt and lemon juice, its vanilla augmented by almond; a New Yorker excoriating Nader in the most articulate and logical of terms; a Bon Appétit presenting images of dream kitchens -- but I think I'm switching to Cook's Illustrated, which has more recipes and less glossy consumerism. I began the morning with scones, only six to a batch to match my appetite (engorged over six months of marathon training), feeding Claire and Philip off to a dog show, two Howard students and prospective tenants waiting for the landlord in the rain, whom we invited up to tea.

A peaceful grey, waking up with only reflected and cloud-filtered light in my boudoir-orange bedroom. Rain intermittently throughout the morning, thankfully vertical so we could keep the windows open and the curtains (white) billowing, only turned into sun as I was leaving for a massage after lunch. Only a tank top, no sleeves. Calvino in my bag (slow reading; thick like poetry). The masseuse affirmed my perception of my relatively high pain threshold for muscle massage; calves and back relaxed with lavender oil unlike anything ever possible in a circle of choirgirls loosening up before a concert in a Madison church or Brazilian park, unlike even that of someone more familiar with your body than a fellow alto.

This has been the pervading vibe of the past week -- Wednesday night, cranking out code to supplement and wrap that which should have arrived with the tools we'd licensed, visions of black bean soup and frozen lime margaritas started dancing in my head well before I'd left work. Beans had soaked since morning, then boiled a few more hours; with the aid of my new blender (even without its slightly-too-skinny plastic top insert, already sacrificed to its voracious blades), I added tablespoons of cumin and teaspoons of cardamom and cayenne; let Claire minister to the tequila and triple sec. (Some things must remain a mystery; if I know about the Tooth Fairy, I at least don't want to know about margaritas.) Swished like the billowing evening-breeze curtains in my yellow graduation skirt.

Or last Sunday afternoon, just having run the marathon that morning. My god, what a twenty-six-point-two miles! Eighteen were fine, beautiful even, with no knee pain (thank you, tropical New Orleans deities!); around twenty I started feeling a deep tissue bruise forming in my right foot. But I was finishing, dammit. Lindsay and I crossed the finish line in the Superdome with my watch reading 5:45, our ankle chips registering 5:57:21.8 -- then both limped the extra mile back to the hotel, she on her girlfriend's arm, me on photographer-for-the-day Russell's. Coach Fred just flabbergasted. Asked me over a half liter of beer that night (on the upstairs level of the Crescent City Brew House! the sadists) how I'd done it, and I think I just grinned and muttered something about tenacity. That afternoon, however, I could barely walk on my right foot -- hobbled the two blocks around the corner from the Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street to Conti Street, to the only café in town with a "VEGETARIAN-FRIENDLY" sign in the window and a "VEGAN" sticker on a bike chained outside: La Fée Verte. Spent that painful afternoon and the next drinking white wine as the diaphanous green curtains blew in off the French Quarter streets, writing postcards, eating sandwiches, reading the Times (of New York, not Picayune). White wine on spring afternoons ... I need to remember that.

Martinis last night on Soussi's patio, watching the first warm Friday night of spring roll by on Adams Morgan's 18 Street. Olives.

This afternoon in the waning sunlight, I crossed the block to the Watha T Daniel branch of the DC public library, finally applied for a library card, and found the small children's section upstairs where I rediscovered Tomie dePaola, and checked out a book of Finnish fairy tales for reading aloud. And now, two pieces of cake and my third cup of black tea for the day. I deserve it; I've run a marathon.

Thu Mar 11 12:48:32 EST 2004

Though the sign still says "CAUTION: DEMOLITION IN PROGRESS," they're finished destroying the building next door to StreamSage. This means they've taken down the boards over the windows that used to face the side of the abutting brick building, now in rubble in the lot next door -- and that sunlight streams into the south-facing offices (the founders', the adults', and the server room). I wandered in to the room that Kirsten shares with the servers around noon, as a patch of sunlight was making its way across the floor, next to the new rack of SR servers. Curled up in it; took a catnap.

Reminiscent of the afternoon Steinway in Lang at Swarthmore, how I'd curl between figured bass exercises up on the quilted piano cover and doze in the pools of sunlight on the wooden concert hall floor. And time to think, as I drifted into a light nap, about how I miss the music. As Colin and I talk around each other, getting to know each other, questions come up to which I don't have good answers. Such as the perennial: If I love music so much, if it always tops my list of things I need to do for the rest of my life, then why am I not pursuing it actively? And I don't know. This has been a question up through college, when I was unsure what to major in, and able to keep putting off plans of music school or more serious study until the great After College. It was never a conscious decision to focus on one side of my brain or the other until senior year, when it became apparent that I needed to just finish my majors, but I was still missing it. I even got to play last spring -- sidelining it in favor of two-thirds of the CS major and a thesis, but rationalizing it into a corner with the excuse of the impending B.A.

But now -- the past nine months, all of a sudden -- I'm here. Graduated, with no excuse to not be doing what I love. And why does my viola only come out once or twice a month, to play some Bach, or when I meet a fiddler from a bluegrass band? The comfort level, the ease of my current situation, has a lot to do with it. But at what point does it become imperative that I follow my purported dreams, and do it now?

*     *     *

(That's not quite fair, I realize after a few hours' thought. Privileged to have had the education I have, ensconced in academia and all things left-cerebral, it's not an easy decision to reject all that in favor of a unilateral right brain existence. What I need, and what I've had relatively comfortably up until graduation, is a balance between the two -- a perilous and frustrating, yet ultimately better than either-or, seesaw.)

Mon Mar 15 14:01:23 EST 2004

The boy makes me think. I like that about him. Can't tell if, grand-scheme, it's indicative of the age gap (seven years eight months exactly), some delta in perspicacity, or merely my relative unsurety about the five existential W-questions; i'm not yet too worried about the disparity of who's asking whom what.

Draws distinctions, such as: when mentally occupied at work, I stop thinking about running away to conservatories; when not, I chafe and keen over lost Bach.

Hits nails on heads -- mentally posing me sipping Mediterranean breezes and coffee in Cinqueterra; eating avocados and playing viola in San Francisco. Tells me places he knows I'd like.

And, ironically, it throws into sharp relief just how transitory of a town this is, how itinerant its denizens. Including me. No idea when I'll be going, or to where, but with a timestamp and expiration on everything within ten square miles, it seems inevitable. Could never settle here, anyhow ... met a girl drinking wine at a gathering of science fellows and friends Friday night who'd gone to UW-Madison. Something about her which I failed to accurately pinpoint reminded me very much of Madison, and contrasted starkly with the East coast. I can't live at this pace forever -- mentally, yes; with this kind of hamster-treadmill ethos, no. Makes me wonder what the West is like.

Music leads starting to come in, from me having extended feelers out as far as I know how (squeaky wheel ...). Met a flutist at a brunch two weekends ago; a co-worker's housemate plays chamber music locally; a violinist Colin knows ... I'll follow them up and see where this goes.

Despite being sick this weekend, I utterly failed to eliminate dairy from my diet. Quite the opposite, actually -- Jaime (with whom I haven't spent any quality time in far too long) and I put together my first venture into the Kaffeehaus cookbook I'd gotten in September, a Mohngugelhupf, poppyseed bundt cake, with three-quarters of a cup of ground poppyseeds secreting their oils into the batter. Oh my. Slice of Vienna.

Cheese, in the theme of my sick-but-non-vegan weekend, smothering a galette at one of those lovely partially-French establishments on the Adams Morgan strip Sunday morning, sharing a cappucino and hefe-weiß with Colin. My body taking over my brain, reällocating all available processing power to deal with combatting sickness, emitting a nominal fever, not leaving much for conversation, leaving a slight imbalance in the interaction. Tonight, curling up on a couch.

Sun Mar 21 10:30:51 EST 2004

I don't usually do the shoe thing. This means I do not have seventeen pairs of heels in my closet, one for every color in the rainbow and day of the week; I do not usually derive pleasure from the pursuit and purchase of a new pair. Oh, I've got some -- enough, I would say: my Birkenstocks (the one sandal I've worn for years); my clogs (after the leaky Naots became unusable (they're still unpatched), the one cold-weather shoe I've worn since their acquisition last winter; the so-called "clunkers" that my mom had for years when I was little, that I re-purchased two years ago in orange; pink tennis shoes gotten ostensibly for a Paul van Dyk show which I now wear everywhere; three pairs of running shoes. But I feel justified in the last, since I ran a goddamned marathon.

That's a reasonable closetful, I would contend. But there's one significant omission -- anything respectable to wear. To concerts, to events, to anything where people Dress Up. Usually, I'm on the performing end of things. I've had a pair of china flats in my viola case for years that I would just slip on right before the show. (They too are now broken; I suppose I need to invest another $4 in a replacement pair.) But I have this idea in my head that "respectable" somehow means "heels." I could be wrong, but that's what Jaime wears to her hot-shit NTI job, and if anyone I know is a bastion of style, it's her.

So Wednesday, when Colin called me to invite me to a low-key shindig on the Hill, I ended up declining, due to lack of things to wear. It's not just the shoes -- I have maybe one outfit that I can wear outside of my apartment, my normal life, and StreamSage, which I bought for interviews at the end of senior year. And the pants don't even really fit anymore, after this marathon and my eating to match! But I managed to boil it all down to that, rationalize that, if I had a pair of decent shoes, I could have gone.

So, in response to my I'm-feeling-lonely call yesterday, Jaime helped me put a cake in the oven, and then took me shoe-shopping. The goal, of course, was to come away with either a better idea of what I was looking for, and/or a reasonable pair of shoes. Instead, I happened into a pair of orange, close-toed, heeled Nine West sandals. So sexy. So not what I was looking for. But they -- or, let's be fair, getting out of the house, and chilling with a good friend -- actually perked me up.

Walked all over town last night in my new heels, to Emi's sushi-and-champagne birthday party, stopping to admire the hems of my jeans hanging down to just the right length over them, and gawk at my reflection looking at her shoes. Who have I turned into? Jaime coaching me on how to walk, where to place my feet, how to move my hips. Whole fucking new world. And this morning, I've got blisters to show for it. This on top of my deep-tissue bruise from the last eight miles of the marathon, that which caused me to hobble from café to brewery in New Orleans and through airports on the subsequent days; on top of the stupid injury incurred while running across a street in my clogs after a pint of Yuengling at an Irish pub with Jaime and Claire, post an amateur but still powerful Vagina Monologues at Georgetown Law Thursday night -- the opposite foot of course, and I haven't been able to run since the 26.2 miles. Endorphin low and I'm not taking it well.

How do women do this? Why do women do this? Argh, but they look good. I'm such a girl.

Sat Mar 27 16:03:14 CEST 2004

There's probably not enough caffeine in my system, and I know there's certainly not enough in Mom's; she's dozing in what is clearly her chair in this Cairene apartment near the American University that she shares with Maha: rickety elevator reminiscent of those original-installations in Vienna manned by a cheerful Mustafa, impressed (or at least pleasantly surprised) by my sabah an-nur response to his two-p-m morning salutation today; water heater you plug in and turn on; gas stove with matches to light the burners, on which Mom has already twice made me Tunisian mint tea that she learned from a Tunisian ex-boyfriend, whom she apparently dated in Paris on her first Fulbright (she's now on her third), and about whom she's already twice refused to tell me anything. Or I could still be tired from having taken a train to New York yesterday, eaten a green shake (bananas, almonds, soy milk, and spinach) and fantastic seitan at the très chic gobo with Anna, flown overnight to Zürich, from there to Cairo, waded through an solid wall of people at customs to obtain a visa (hey, I didn't realize I needed one of those!), been stuffed with food, crashed, and then have been touring the Citadel all morning. That or the lack of caffeine.

Mom's friend's sister's husband A'atif picked me up at the zoo of an airport, drove us back in a seatbeltless car in the zoo of traffic into a tiny zoo of a neighborhood not even on my Cairo map, to a tiny but well-furnished apartment shared by him, his wife Minaal, and their daughter Hadir. Minaal had prepared more food than could feed an entire Mumlak army at an iftar, and plied me and my mom with stuffed grape leaves and stuffed what-I'm-guessing-was-okra, fresh strawberry juice (the Arabic word for which I recalled from Stephen Hatfield's Ya Faraoule), homemade chips, fruit salad, and more kinds of baqlawa and general halwa than I had any idea existed. And only then came the Turkish coffee (an Egyptian specialty, but prepared differently than Mom learned in Lebanon, on her second Fulbright), tea, cake, and crème caramel.

I'm embarrassed that I don't know more Arabic than I do. This is the first time I've been such a tourist, unable to even ask for water if I had to (hm, should probably look that word up) -- even in Japan with WYSO six years ago, I crammed enough of the syntax (and, more importantly, lexicon) into my head to manage the niceties; here, I'm lost. The eight weeks I had at the Middle East Institute were useless, the instructor without much formal knowledge of his own native language and no idea of how to run a class -- and so here I am, and I can say "good morning," "thank you," and "nice to meet you," but not "goodbye" or "excuse me." Laughable, really. So yesterday, A'atif drilled me on numerals, I learned how to say kwais awi ("very good," which I used on everything they fed me), and I almost wanted to sign up for more semesters of the language (but this time maybe at the USDA!). But I settled for consuming a plate of grape leaves and all the baqlawa I possibly could, smiling, and repeating shukran. A little gets you so far, really. My eager ahlan to everyone Mom introduces me to has earned me many kwais awis already, and it's clear they like to see someone trying. But I'm the one who picked up most of German in six months! Wasn't I supposed to be at least telegraphic by now? Ya'nii, but that was Indo-European, a common sound system, and familiar alphabet. Maybe I'll have to do more Arabic, if only for self-one-upmanship.

Dinner with Paul tonight. I'm looking forward to more fantastic veganisms!

Tue Mar 30 22:35:03 CEST 2004

Going to an opera in Cairo was probably a silly idea, but what with six Egyptian pounds to the dollar and tickets for Tosca at 25 pounds, it's almost as cheap as standing room in Vienna. Nowhere near the caliber, though, as I would have anticipated had I thought about it any more. Anticipating the vacation, it had felt like a familiar point in an unfamiliar week; after three days in the city, it felt silly to be putting on a sleeveless dress (not wanting to attract any more attention than I already do here, I covered my arms), borrowing hose, and donning my new orange heels for a walk through the uneven pavement of the island in the middle of the Nile. And the production itself was kind of silly -- a mixture of locals and Italians, none sang convincingly enough nor acted with any feeling at all. The orchestra wasn't always in tune. Never quite out, but not always on. The tenor fat and fatuous, and overdramatic, ruining even the glorious E lucevan le stelle. Oh well. Supertitles only in Arabic, of which Mom understood more than she did Italian. Alhamdulileh for program notes; I got almost none of the Italian, and amused myself reading the transliterations of the protagonists' names on the supertitles.

In contrast, Mom & I made it to the baiti 'oud al-arabi to hear the graduation concert of a Jordanian 'oud student studying under Nasser Shama. Despise the ambient Arabic rock music from a wedding reception outside, he played admirably -- and apparently his jury thought so, too, publicly awarding him highest marks after he'd finished.

Other than music in Cairo, Mom has been taking me all over the city -- mostly in cabs that cost anywhere between three and 10 pounds ($0.60 to $1.80) from Midan Talat Harb (near Mom's flat, and near El Abd, the fantastic bakery from which I've been stuffing myself with baqlawa) to anywhere in the city. Ludicrous. Mosque after mosque, covering my head with my jacket this evening as Mom talked us into the closed-for-evening-prayers, 9th-century Al-Azhar. Striking up a conversation with every cabbie, the felucca operator on the Nile this afternoon, every salesman from whom we consider buying, every shoe-taker at every mosque -- which often seems to get us in where we wouldn't otherwise, and gets us prices still higher than than an Egyptian might be offered, but definitely less than would initially be offered a complete foreigner.

I'm also being introduced to all Mom's teachers and fellow students at the AUC, all of whom love her. Such a good student, they exclaim! and they're so happy to meet binti Noori, about whom they've hear so much! (Makes me wonder what kind of family laundry gets aired in conversation class ...) Met her colloquial teacher today, who's apparently one of the first people anywhere to be teaching Egyptian spoken Arabic via a systematic and linguistic approach, as opposed to a jumbled set of changes from the fuSHa, so-called "standard" Arabic, which is what everyone is -- illogically -- first taught. Almost makes me want to get a Fulbright to come over here and help Sharifa write the first linguistically complete grammar of the spoken 'ammiyya.

But I could never live here, I think. The role of women alone drives me crazy -- the ratio of men to women walking alone on the street; the head-and-neck-covering hijab and the less-frequent face veil; the yells I get on the street; what I can and can't wear. The pure harassment is not more than I get on the streets of DC in the summer, but the stares are worse. You'd think they'd never seen a woman before -- and to some extent, I suppose they haven't. Mostly the comments come from behind, as I pass them: You look like a movie star -- What do you want to buy, my heart? Will you buy my heart? (this from a teenager keeping shop at the Khan al-Khalili) -- I have never seen anything as beautiful as you -- I like your sunglasses, very nice -- and the benign, yet from a group of twentysomething men, as I passed looking at my watch -- Ehh .. can you tell me what time is it?. Since they can't see my face at that point, I usually just crack up and keep walking.

But between that and the unending stares! And I'm dressed as modestly as any Egyptian girl. I can't deal with it; it makes me want to not even venture out on the street, knowing I'll be on display (and my life in danger, what with this damned traffic) every time I do. I vacillate during the day from complacently ignoring it to wanting to scream in the face of the next man who asked me a question or comments on my damned sunglasses. So far, the latter impulse has always passed by the time the next boy who thinks he's Allah's gift to women says something in my direction, but I could never live here for fear that I'd punch one of them and get in a street brawl with people twice my size. The West, for all its flaws and subtle sexist cultural mores -- however much I may be a prisoner in a much more insidious form or institutionalized repression -- is never this infuriating, or at least not on a daily basis.

all this ©nori heikkinen, March 2004

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