Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Chatting with Channing

It had begun ordinarily enough. Back in 2007, I was flying home from a wedding in St. Petersburg/Tampa, Florida, home of the famed Salvator Dali museum and retirement mecca for Americans aged 65+. Weddings had become routine to me, particularly since I was not acquainted with either bride or groom, and I was attending purely out of the social obligation of being a plus one. Nonetheless, I enjoyed dolling up and looking pretty and dancing on the arm of a less than perfect man. Particularly in a ballroom flooded with light high atop a famed hotel, sunshine accompanying every movement of everyone in that narrow circle of sunset.

I sat in an exit seat, besides a fellow who was so tall his legs extended to the next row and so he looked awkwardly cramped, even with extra leg room. He seemed good-natured (and kind of cute), so we began talking. Apparently, he was also flying back from a buddy's wedding to the New York area. "But I live in LA," he added.

"So, are you some kind of consultant?" I wanted to know.

"Actually, I'm an actor."

"Really? What's your name?" I did a double-take. He had chiseled good looks, sort of statuesque, like a Greek god, but seemed too approachable to be an actor.

"Chan. Channing Tatum." What an odd name.

"Never heard of you. What have you been in?"

"Have you ever seen She's the Man with Amanda Bynes?" I hadn't.

So he began to explain the premise of the movie, working with Amanda Bynes ("she's a sweetheart") as well as details of life as an actor, like how they get health insurance (through an actor's union), and then we discussed fame, Tom Cruise, celebrities, "Anonimity is like air. You don't realize you've got it until you've lost it." The he began talking about how he broke into the industry. He used to play sports and after an injury, he was rather lost. Then he got into modeling, one thing led to another, and a path opened to the silver screen. Acting was just the beginning, though, as he told me of his plans to write and direct. In fact, he was already working a screenplay. Then I discussed my analagous plans of writing, the children's fantasy novel I was working on, my dream of being a writer. He believed in dreams, and told me I could succeed if I continued writing. We all could.

The flight attendant began the safety preamble, and we promptly turned off our cell phones. His was pink and glittering; I recall the rhinestones flickering as he sheepishly put it away. "It's my girlfriend's," he admitted. His face glowed as he spoke about meeting Jennie on a movie set, how they couldn't keep their eyes and hands off each other, how they couldn't help being together, the chemistry that was so intense when you knew you were meant to be with someone.

When inquired about my relationship, I replied it was serious and I was actually considering marrying the man. Channing looked at me quizzically for a moment.

"You don't seem to be that excited about it."

"Well, you know, it's a big committment, a lot of change, and I just wasn't sure exactly how everything was going to pan out. Where we would live; how we would make it work. So many details to be ironed out." I felt myself blushing.

"You just don't seem to be in love with him."

My perplexity must have showed in my face. Channing laughed. "When you are in love with someone, the whole world knows. You can't stop thinking about the other person. You can't stop talking about the other person. When you are in love, your eyes light up at the simple thought of them. Like me and Jennie."

He was right. Six years later, he and Jenna are probably one of Hollywood's happiest young couples.

Whenever I think of Channing Tatum, I don't think of one of the World's Sexiest Men, or critically acclaimed actor, or celebrity on the rise. I remember a kind fellow who told me the unadulterated truth about myself.

One I am still figuring out six years later.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Post Script: Rules of Machu Picchu

After the smoke clears in Peru, what is left? I distinctly remember Machu Picchu as a place where all things break; rules, relationships, restlessness. Back in 2008, there was a sign that stipulated the following: 1) no food and drink allowed (I carried a bottle of water with me, maybe two) 2) no shouting (I sang atop Huayna Picchu) 3)no urinating. Although rule # 3 was improvised by me, I am quite sure there was an unspoken law against this, and probably broken by many (like my companion)as the restroom at the entrance was so far from the rest of the site it was inevitable someone couldn't control himself.

In times of crisis, we discover ourselves. Our true, authentic self is bared in all its glory and all its ugliness. I came back from Peru knowing I needed to change my life. And I was resistant until change happened to me. Career, love, health, everything came crashing down like debris from a burning skyscraper, and in vain I searched amid the rubble for who I am. I learned that I write, thoughts flowing into stories, a river of consciousness that became real under my pen or my word processor. I was the channel. I write because I have a need to be understood, to share, to materialize a fantastical vision awakened somewhere between dreams and reality. I write because it is my connection to the universe; I write because I am compelled to write, and it is as natural to me as eating or sleeping or talking, except that sometimes I forget myself, my true self and the writing itself becomes dormant.

I also realized that I am confused about love. If the passion was intense and you truly believed you were in love, shouldn't you feel something after a love affair ends? I found that I felt nothing, complete indifference and nonchalance. Nothing residual, nothing nostalgic, none of the lingering desire or regret that always seems to accompany a love story with an unhappy ending. Was it romanticism that was conveyed in literature and Wong Kar Wai films, but simply doesn't exist in this all-too practical life? Did I only imagine I was love, but was actually in love with love itself? Or was it that negative things outweighed the good, and I was too exhausted with trying that there was nothing left to remember?


Saturday, June 29, 2013

L'eau Vivre in Lima

Lima was an engaging city. The saffron colored San Franciso Cathedral, emblem of the capital, could have been just as easily named after Pizzaro as much as the saint from Asissi. I remember the vibrant yellows of the historic city center, Spanish Neoclassical and baroque architecture, and the sunniness of the Peruvian disposition. And above all, a French restaurant.

L'eau Vivre, Living Water, was an elegant, high end joint boasting the best French cuisine in the city, run by French Carmelite nuns. Housed in a exquisite pale pink palace, the walls were reminiscent of salmon and delectable strawberry macaroons. Rumors of a serenade of Ave Maria accompanied dinner, but we went for the far less expensive lunch menu. L'agneau and vin du rose. For the dessert, les crepes au Cointreau en flambe. The match lit the alcohol, and I saw my partner on the other side of the dancing flame, his features somehow blurred by the proximate heat. I blinked and continued to eat, the flavor of intoxication burning my tongue. Suddenly, I realized he was not what I wanted, the very fundamental fiber of his being was so different from mine. I swallowed as he continued to talk, to charm the nuns with his fluent French. I nodded, catching a word here and there about adventures and promises and oh so many wondrous things. When they wished us a lovely future together, I began to feel sick inside.

Then we were promptly ushered out, as the lunch hours were 11am-1pm and we had apparently overstayed our welcome. The guests dissipated and I took an inordinately long time in the rest room, as ladies sometimes do. The restaurant was sealed shut, and we sat on the bench across the street, deciding where to go next. The nuns scurried to the side of the building, where a queue was already beginning to form. The men and women who gathered were dirty, unkempt, and their stench was unmistakable, drifting across the thoroughfare. They carried stained bags and tattered parcels, and we knew they were homeless. Then the nuns began distributing soup, a piece of bread, and a potato to all who waited. The line magnified and stretched as we watched, and they ate ravenously, perhaps it was their first meal in a while. Yet they all had the same hungry look in their eyes, even after their appetites were satiated.

I had seen that look before, in ubiquitous places and on the faces of strangers as well as friends. Then I thought about hunger, my own hunger for the wonders of this world, and intangible things that my partner could never understand, as he hungered for things equally alien to me. I thought about all things that one would risk to fulfill that hunger, an amorphous spirit that always seems to plague us, all the things that we want. Want. Desire. Desperation. Perhaps we are all hungry.

Monday, May 13, 2013

On the Precipice: Peru

I stood on the precipice overlooking Machu Picchu. It had been a sweaty climb to the top of the Temple of the Sun, but well worth it. It was breathtaking. The fog had finally dispersed over the Andes Mountains and views of the Lost City of the Incas were riveting, magical, and surreal. Here, we could see the symmetry of their walls, stone upon stone and edge upon edge slanting in the same direction, the building of an awesome civilization. Sacred geography. Water gushed along the crevices, an ancient watering system that still fed into the hot springs of Aguas Calientes for common folk at the foot of the mountain. The sun warmed my cheeks and I was an eagle, yearning to fly.

At the same time, I am afraid of heights. Beside me stood the man I loved. Little did I know we would part before the year ended. The path downward was infinitely more difficult than climbing up. The steps were jagged and broken, too narrow to contain a whole foot and people wound up tiptoeing sideways while balancing the gravitational pull to the center of the earth. I stopped and stared. I thought I was going to die. Gingerly, I stepped down and then tripped, hanging onto a branch for dear life. I trudged forward again and slipped, clinging to rocks for survival. Then I decided to descend on my reliable behind, muddying the seat of my jeans beyond recognition. I was never able to wear them again.

I often wondered what would have happened had I continued to climb up instead of down. There was another summit, a more beautiful and loftier peak Huayna Picchu, rumored to have been the resting place of a moon goddess. I wanted to keep going , but my companion warned me of the time and the litany of activities he planned afterwards. Plus, he needed to go to the bathroom. So I went down, on my butt.

Perhaps we must fall before we can fly. My life crumbled shortly afterwards and I remembered the image of rain beating down on stone, submitting it into the shape that it willed. I had succumbed to fear, to expectations, to the will of others. I had lost myself and I did not even notice until I saw myself in the mirror one day and did not recognize the person who was going about her daily business. Life may do this to you. Work may do this to you. Society may do this to you. The intentions of others, no matter how well-meaning and kind, may lead you astray if you are not true to your own heart.

Where was my heart? I embarked on a journey to find out. I am still on that journey. Many things are still uncertain. I still have dark, unholy nights filled with self-doubt. Yet there are flashes of truth and inspiration, spurring the genesis of my novel and birth of my blog. I know I am enough. When you find an inkling of yourself, your authentic self, you need very little else.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Love in the Lost City of Petra

It's easy to become intoxicated by atmosphere. In the lost city of Petra, rose-colored sandstone and scintillating skies render a hotbed of love, albeit the most unlikely love. Love flushes and blushes like a young bride in this wonder of world, brought to international attention by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Al Khazneh, the Treasury, stands as centerpiece of this architectural marvel, carved with beauteous colummns and friezes of a pink that seemed to glow. Instead of Harrison Ford flashing his famous whip, tour guides lead gentle donkeys bearing tourists. All the guides belong to the indigenous people, the Nabateans, a people ancient as the Bible itself. They are modern-day bedouins, shepherds who make decent money showing impressionable tourists around the city of their ancestors.

That's not all. Nabateans also have a particular way of wooing. They show eligible female visitors that this is where they grew up, where their grandfathers tended goats and where their mothers churned milk. They show the lofty monastery atop the mountain where they climbed as children, and iridescent walls where they hid from their parents. Then they show the women their tents, where they proceed to do the thing that men and women do. Afterwards, these modern and curious ladies (often American) decide to stay. No joke. They marry into the Nabatean tribe, and live their lives in shepherding villages. Apparently, it happens all the time.

Thank God I was with my brother. The Nabatean guide atop our donkey was young and as dusty as they come, save for the designer Tommy Hilfiger jeans he sported. My fiancee, he said, is an opera singer in Chicago, showing a photo of striking brunette on his smartphone. She already got me a ticket for the States, and then we will be back here to get married. We will live here, among my brothers and uncles. Any chance they will live in America? No, he shakes his head, most of the women who visit here stay here. They are happier.

Was it love? Or infatuation? Or the call of a simpler life? First-world luxury and conveniences somehow paled in comparison to the rough and tumble, sweat and grime of the Nabatean life. What was it that fulfilled these women to the point of giving up modern livestyles?

I never knew because I never went inside those tents. The sun began to set, casting a red light over the city and the stones seemed warm, alive. Then the wind blew and the sand swirled in glistening ruby-red speckles, the beginnings of a mirage. And I gazed through that thing of beauty, wondering if I was dreaming.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Species of Travelers

There are many types of travelers, like there are many kinds of people. After spending so much time in airports and hotels, I've learned to identify them by their attire, behaviors, and natural habitats.

The Consultant: This particular species of traveler is unmistakable. Young, intense, immaculately dressed in black or navy suit and starched shirt, the textbook uniform of a young billable consultant making an impression senior management. They look about 2-6 years out of college; their skin is luminous and yet unlined, save for the potential frown when they are engaged in deep thought. They are often absorbed in responding to emails via blackberry, Iphone, or labtop. If they do look up and speak, their language is apt to be reassured and measured, diction reminiscent of an Ivy league education or some coveted university in the top 10 lists. They have been around the world, or the country, in a matter of speaking, for some lexicon of a project where they have seen many things at lightning speed, but have never taken the time to savor. Time, they would tell you, is a coveted possession they currently do not have, and their homes are more of a concept than a reality; so little time do they spend there. Due to the mileage they have covered, they are usually found in airline lounges for frequent fliers, or rather exclusive hotel spaces reserved for VIPs.

The Vacationer: The vacationer is usually middle-aged (let's keep in mind that modern definitions of middle-aged is 40+) with a rabble of kids somewhere, complete with a camera and tourist book, and clothes bespeaking of leisure like the flowered Hawaiian shirt and straw hat to keep out the sun. They usually flock to tropical locations in a group, a tour, or a cruise, where they have to do as little thinking as possible. Even in easy-to-navigate European cities, they opt for an overpriced hop on/hop off bus and spend as much time buying souvenirs (possibly more) as they do exploring the destination. Traveling is somewhat of a novelty for them (perhaps it is their first or second vacation in a long time) and they are overwhelmed by all the stuff they want to take back home, and all the things they have to see. They are often loud and boisterous, not because they are obnoxious, but because their joy is contagious at this glimpse of a new world. And by the way, they spend way more money than anyone else.

The Seasoned Traveler: This type tends to travel light and alone, or in small numbers (2-4). They are less cognizant of social perceptions and more aware of cultural rules of the nation they are visiting. Very often, they understand the language or have been here or lived there before. They are focused and usually maintain a plan of things they would like to do, realizing that one could never see or do everything in one visit, and they leave room for spontaneity. If you spot them, ask for their advice. They have invaluable tips, like how to not get ripped off by a taxi, how much to tip, the best way to avoid a crowd, and delectable food recommendations. They may also share lengthy stories, and inevitable comparisons to other places, so try not to feel intimidated by the wealth of their experience. Some may even be a bit skeptical, with a penchant to be unimpressed or underwhelmed, and there is usually an emotional or professional reason why they are there. They tend to be the most varied regarding age, sometimes it is a retired gentleman or a young graduate student.

The Backpacker: These are the easiest to spot, as they are colorful and take up the most space. They carry their homes on their backs, like a turtle or snail, tightly bundled paraphenalia of camping gear and sleeping bags and all their possessions in one bulky mass they lug around. They are usually younger, some poor students, some adventurous professionals, who take pride in "roughing it" and building a camaraderie with strangers who share the same purpose. Even if they start off alone, they end up congregating, as they sleep in communal hostels and wind up building relationships that may last them a trip or a lifetime. They move at whirlwind pace, a city/site every one or two days, rain or shine, and are amazingly efficient at finding the cheapest deals for transportation. They are usually found at bus depots or internet cafes or everywhere else, since they are rather conspicuous. Very often, they seem to be in transition. Students on holiday contemplating their futures, professionals thinking of a career change, people seeking a break from the orderliness of their everyday lives, romantics hoping to find or forget someone. Or they could be simple blokes stretching a very thin budget. Inevitably, they smell like their adventures, nature, sun and sea and sand and sweat embedded on their backpacks like a badge of courage.

Perhaps there is something admirable about doing things the hard way.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fatima Awaits

Long before I discovered Mary in Epheseus, I convinced my mother to go to Fatima, Portugal. Not that I was a fan of the shrine; rosaries and processions seemed a bit nonsensical to me. In fact, I despise the word "religious" because it implies dogma. Nonetheless, Fatima was my mother's dream. For her 60th birthday, she yearned to sojourn to this sacred place of apparition and healing energy, and my mother is a woman for whom few dreams have come true. So I booked airline tickets to Lisbon, Portugal followed by a short excursion to Barcelona, shortly before her 59th birthday. I don't believe in waiting. Birthdays, timelines, ocassions, are all rather arbitrary. So we wait. In the meantime, people die, revolutions arise, natural disasters occur, the physical world or our own physiological systems could deteriorate while we anticipate the "right" time. I say, Carpe Diem. The right time is now.

Perhaps I should share another anecdote. My godmother, my namesake, my beautiful Aunt Catherine died of Stage IV cancer at the age of 44. She was a Georgetown graduate, a dentist, and such a wonderfully tempered woman, so at the end, she was comforting her neurotic, healthy sister Agatha undergoing a bad case of pre-marital jitters. Aunt Catherine had made only one request of me in twenty-six years, to spend a weekend with her at the beach. In my heart, I heard her plea. I even envisioned myself beside her. But no, I was a consultant, and I was on a deadline. Also, Agatha's wedding was the following weekend and I had already slated vacation days for that event. So I told my godmother I would see her at the wedding. Unfortunately, she never made it to the wedding. The few designated days she asked me to spend with her were the last days of her young and vibrant life.

It was a dangerous mistake, and a bitter regret, one for which I am still trying to forgive myself. The only amends I can make is to love those who are currently living. There was a time when I longed for that idyllic romantic love, exquisite perfections we read about in fairytales and immortal, unforgettable men like A Tale of Two Cities' Sydney Carton or Pride & Prejudice's Mr. Darcy. I was waiting. I was stagnant. I was enamored of an ideal, a fictionalized ideal at that. Then I realized that the great love in our lives may already exist right before our eyes, even though we may not recognize it. Love may not necessarily be what society defines it, as the right partner. It might be a parent, a child, a friend, a sibling, a pet. Love is any relationship that challenges us to think beyond ourselves, to care for another creature, to grow in our capacity to give. Because our sacred calling as human beings is not gratify ourselves, but to expand in our ability to love, each day, each month, each year. I think about who it is, whose smile uplifts my heart and whose happiness is more important to me than my own.

I have found my true love, in this day, in this moment. It doesn't mean that I may not have others, but in this moment, that person is my soulmate. And no, it does not look conventional at all.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

There is Something About Mary

I never quite got Mary. Catholics are taught to have a reverence for the Virgin Mary, the holy woman whose obedience rendered an extraordinary destiny. Catholics also believe in apparitions, when she had appeared to simple peasants or children, asking them to pray. She was thought to be the symbol of peace. At my mother's behest, I dragged myself to Lourdes and then Fatima. Beautiful shrines were erected in the midst of prosaic villages. I often found my spirituality was often in the surrounding woods or barren paths on the other side of town, bare spaces where it was easier to listen to the silence. So I trudged along, going to processions out of habit, and avoiding rosaries whenever I could. I thought the true ordeal she endured was watching her innocent child die, and Mary was not alone in that in our current crime-infested world, so I thought, what's the big deal?

A few miles outside of Epheseus, Turkey, was the house where the Virgin Mary lived before she died. I was skeptical, another Marian shrine. However, I found a small, dilapidated wooden house with few furnishings and long lines. Outside the site were plaques engraved in Arabic, lines from the Koran heralding the mother of Jesus and juxtaposed were biblical verses. Then I walked inside that cramped hovel, and saw a cramped room. Crowds of Catholics, and Muslims (indicated by their colorful head scarves) stood side by side praying, kneeling, and meditating. Each was respectful of the other's space and need for proximity to Mary, the things she touched. Many were so moved by their presence so near to Mary, that they began to cry. Inaudibly, tears rolled along a myriad of cheeks. Some opened up their prayerbooks; Bible and Koran were indistinguishable while the soft chanting seemed a universal murmur.

I too, began to cry. Nowhere else in the world can Christians and Muslims stand side by side in worship of the same. Even the greatest diplomatic efforts have failed to bring these two peoples together. Here they were, mostly women, I should add, close enough to touch one another. They spoke the same language. It was motherhood; it was unconditional love; it was complete surrender and utter faith. They all bowed to the same holy woman with the same name. Interesting how God seems somehow divisive by comparison: Yahweh, Jesus, Allah.

There's something about Mary.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Coffee with Olivier

I traveled by water taxi on stormy days in Amsterdam. Rain pitter-pattering on the roof, the drone of tourist recordings heralding bridges or sites, and the voice of Sarah Brightman drifting from my Ipod. Despite the loose behavior one would associate with legalization of victimless crimes like prostitution or smoking marijuana, Amsterdam is surprisingly pristine. Canal waters were clear and grey reflecting the ambivalent skies, not dirty like the waters I've seen in China's Suzchou or Venice. While trolleys and cars were accepted means of transportation, bicycles were by far the most common. There were more bikes than people. In fact, the greatest hazard while crossing the street is being run over by a bike. Bicycles had their own lanes beside the sidewalks. The Dutch were fit due to the physical exercise exerted to get from place to place. Only tourists were obese.

At Amy's advice, I headed to the house of Ann Frank promptly at 9 in the morning, since later hours would engender massive lines. Unassuming from the exterior, aside from glossy life-size photos of Ann and her girlish script denoting the museum within. Upon entering, there was a model of the building which served as a store, and the Secret Annex, where the Frank family hid from the Nazis for nearly three years. Living quarters were minuscule, even by New York City apartment standards, tiny shoe boxes connecting room to room. They had an airless, claustrophobic feel and I could not imagine an inquisitive girl growing into womanhood, writing and dreaming and falling in love, cooped up with only a few feet of shared space. Suburban Americans hold the concept of space very dear. As mortgages became more accessible, their physical boundaries expanded. Nowadays, a 2000 sq. ft townhouse with three bedrooms is deemed "too small" for a family of four and having a child necessitates a mini-van, as those little darlings occupy so much space. Imagine six rooms with seven people, three hormonal teenagers, sharing about 500-600 feet of living space all the time. Even though Ann did write of feeling stifled, it made Peter's proximity even nearer and the escape into her diary all the more dearer. The Secret Annex's bareness and simplicity resembled prison cells. I began to see the human ability to adapt to conditions that were previously regarded as "unlivable." Viktor Frankl compared the human ability to endure hardship to a gaseous entity; it always swells to the size of the container. Deprivation of liberty certainly falls into this category, and I garnered new respect for Ann.

As I left, I saw a postcard of a window that has been boarded up, the only window in the Secret Annex. It looked out into the courtyard where trees were blooming in midsummer, and leaves were an evanescent green. This must have been what Ann saw. It was hope. It was the future. It was the life she would have led once the throes of Nazi domination ended. It was a life that was never to be.

Then I sauntered over to the Van Gogh Museum, whose mad genius compelled him to construe torturous sunflowers on the canvas and to cut off his own ear. Even his brushstrokes were violent, streaks thick with pigment and pain, vibrancy owing to the anger that seemed to ravage his soul. Perhaps art is less about context than emotion; I felt his brusqueness on my psyche long before I discovered his history of mental illness. Nonetheless, his work was breathtaking and I reveled in his misshapen flowers far more than his most famous piece, Starry Night. To me, Starry Night is less about emotion than illusion, staring through the orb of darkness with an eye for the surreal. As through a mirror, darkly.

One of the key features of Dutch Museums is that there are more native collections of artifacts than in typical European cities or any international metropolis with a sizable financial economy and appreciation of art, for that matter. While Paris or Rome or New York or Prague are famed for their museums, it has become a competition for a similar body of work. For example, each of these prestigious museums boasts a Monet, Rembrandt, Picasso, something by Da Vinci, etc. Unless one is seeking to view a specific work (yes, I have frequented the Guggenheim to view Picasso's Woman Ironing many times), one is ultimately looking at the same collection of artists everywhere. After a while, it all begins to look the same. In Amsterdam, I was able to see so many things that were uniquely Dutch.

Remember Olivier from Munich? He studied in Uetrecht, an hour away from Amsterdam by train, and we met up for coffee in the afternoon. Mint leaves were steamed in tea, an emerald green reminiscent of spring on this dreary day. Olivier was tall and hairy, with luminous eyes and sympathetic face. He seemed much older than me, even though I was a few years his senior. There was something about his expression that denoted a profound wisdom, and he reminded me of the way Jesus must have looked, with his careless abandon of materialism. We talked about politics. In the Netherlands, politicians are apt to be "plain clothes" men, to resemble your next door neighbor in their no-nonsense speech and manner. That was what the Dutch related to. Olivier praised American politicians for being "visionary,"acting with the panache of a celebrity, sporting designer clothes and hobnobbing with movie stars. I didn't know how to tell him so much of that was a media creation, with the wondrous aid of a teleprompter and a lot of make-up. Besides, Americans like sweet-talkers, men who make delectable promises and even more honeyed excuses for breaking them. In the Netherlands, politics was "rather straightforward," Olivier confided to me. In America, politics is anything but.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Amy and Amsterdam

When I returned to the hotel that evening, Amy surprised me with a birthday dinner along with her colleagues. Together we gorged ourselves on tasty Dutch cuisine. A carnivore at heart, I ordered stamppot, a heavy concoction of mashed potatoes, sliced carrots, and rookwurst, a delectable sausage. We also shared a serving of bitterballen, crunchy deep-fried orbs are battered in a breadcrumb coating and filled with a mixture of chopped beef, beef broth, and spices. As I bit into the core, hot juices exploded into my mouth and my eyes watered. Amy and I laughed about how bitterballen resembled xiao long bao, Shanghai soup dumplings. Asian girls in Amsterdam; she was Taiwanese and I was Vietnamese, both of us born and raised in America. We went to the symphony one night, and we shared glasses of wine over an exquisite concerto.

Friendship was like peeling away layers of an onion. Beneath her veneer of Princeton-educated reserve, Amy was sensitive, self-deprecating, and direct. She had an aversion to cell tower radiation, the same electromagnetic source as microwaves. She seemed to get headaches and nausea whenever the signals was too strong. She always asked me to turn off my cell phone or my IPOD. At first, I was skeptical. After all, this is the new millenium and it was rarer to find areas without wifi/cellular signals. Science has not really explored this.

Then I remembered my godmother who suffered from Stage IV metastatic breast cancer, and how using cell phones or being proximate to a microwave caused her pain. Amy shared that working in telecommunications, she was exposed to radiation for many years before she began feeling its affects on her body. When she did, the impact was potent and she now uses a lead cloth to insulate her space when she travels. It was a fine fabric that resembled a glittery accessory for an evening gown, the sort one could envision on a glamorous movie star.

So negative health effects may result from an overexposure to this kind of radiation. At what point does exposure become overexposure? I began thinking of 25 different wireless networks that penetrate my apartment everyday. Excess, the root of all evil in Buddhist philosophy, has also been the cause of many diseases of the human body. Diabetes, an excess of sugar. Obesity, an excess of fat. High blood pressure, excess of sodium. Depression and anxiety, an excess of neurotransmitters.

So yes, I became a believer. It was years before tobacco became linked to lung disease, or alcohol was linked to liver failure. Or maybe it was less about faith and more about friendship. About acceptance. Amy was dedicated to bringing to light the ill effects of cell tower radiation, building a website and writing articles about it. I applauded her courage.

My days in Amsterdam invariably followed the same pattern: exploration by day and soul-searching conversations with Amy at night. It was the perfect balance for me, freedom to follow my natural affinities and yet not coming back to an empty room. I had learned everyone was susceptible to loneliness and my sojourn across Europe taught me that we all need someone, at one point or another. Amsterdam was an exercise of moderation for me. Appropriate too, in the most tolerant city on earth. Amsterdam was a silver city to me, grey skies, iridescent canals, slate cobblestone roads. People were free to pursue their happiness, be it museums, cuisine, music, marijuana, or sex. There was no judgment regarding race or gender or orientation or social class.

While much of Europe is quite accepting of Asians nowadays, the Netherlands sports acceptance as a tradition. In the National Dutch Museum,I saw portraits of the early traders and owners of the East Asia Trading Company in the 1500-1600's. Their wives had Oriental features! Black hair, almond eyes with a prominent lilt at the edge, and golden complexions. In an age where interracial marriage was practically unheard of, here were wealthy, prominent businessmen who flaunted their Asian wives as equals, standing at the same height in portraits.

Only the Dutch.