April 2012, Seoul.
I’m sitting across F at a barbecue joint. Sitting on long wooden benches, spicy marinated chicken grilling over a nest of coals on the table between us. We’re getting to know each other, but there are no first-date jitters. We’re chatting and shooting the shit. Normal human stuff.
The meat starts smoking, and I quickly grab the tongs to flip the meat. It’s burnt. I sheepishly smile at F and apologize. An exasperated server appears from nowhere and pulls the long silver ventilation tube closer to our “extra-crispy” chicken. The smoke whooshes away into the tube. We eat around the charred bits of meat, and chat on. Normally, I’d be embarrassed at this, the cardinal sin of Korean barbecue: Thou shalt never burneth thy meat. Curiously, though, in the face of this potentially date-ruining moment, I’ve never felt more at ease.
April 2017, France.
4 a.m. I’ve just woken up from an awful nightmare, and I’m in tears. Half-asleep, F slings his arm around me, and gently places a hand on my stomach. His touch brings me back to this reality: I’m snuggled up, cozy in bed, and safe. Shhh, there’s no reason to freak out.
In a single loving gesture, he puts me at ease.
This time, every time.
The 8 o’clock hour. If I am to make or break this day, it’s decided in the 8 o’clock hour.
I crack open an eye to get my bearings.
When the sky is still thick, before the sun clears away the mist. The world is silent. The shutter is cracked open just enough for me to see the day. The window faces west, and a soft glow comes through the pinpricks. Good morning, world.
In my fluffy robe and socks I feel like a human-sized stuffed animal as I pad out to my little spot next to the window that overlooks the garden.
This morning, the sun kisses the trees and houses. The sun drips through pine branches and makes them look illuminated from within. The ground hasn’t been touched by sunlight yet, and the remaining leaves are painted a dull purple. Ferns fan out in a beautifully random spread, and the grass looks a deep turquoise-green. Dusted with a gentle frost, the ground looks like a delicate still life.
I stir some honey into coconut milk for my morning treat. It’s a rich soothing comfort to my empty grumbling stomach.
From my little window, this is all mine.
My fingers itch, and I smile to myself.
It’s time to write.
Today is made.
8:00 a.m. Wake up, open eyes, lift the shutters a few inches. Let the day slowly come into focus. Deep green-gray morning light comes into the bedroom. The light is the same as it was in summer back home; the heavy greenness of the trees coupled with the muggy grayness was hypnotizing and almost narcotic. The sky was a thick gray comforter that cocooned and muffled the world. It inspired a contented lethargy that made me relate to Rip Van Winkle.
Then came the rain. First in fat heavy drops that smacked your face. You would hear the rush of rain hit the tree leaves a split second before the downpour hit you. The burst of fresh rain cut into your doziness and woke you right up.
I would run to put on some scrappy play clothes and run around in the rain. I’d dance, stomp around on the sidewalk, and bask in the glorious shower. Mom would greet me at the door with a towel, and there was nothing like the contented feeling of changing into dry clothes. I can almost still feel it.
But it’s not going to rain today, in France, in 2016. It will be a seasonably warm, sunny day. This moment will pass soon enough. I’m a bit let down that nature has played this trick on me. Nostalgia has struck again.
Nostalgia in French has a negative connotation. La nostalgie is associated with regret, yearning, and melancholy. Sadness. I think it’s a pity, because Nostalgia is that old friend that connects me with the sentimentality that gives a hankering for a certain dish, or to draw, to write: in other words, the endless, untapped creativity inspired by my childhood.
Nostalgia connects me with the wonder I had at the world that I want to hold on to. It reminds me of the way the seasons have passed around and through me; man, I can still feel them all in my guts.
The smell of the ground and dry grass; the color of the early-morning sun mixed with dew on a summer morning; the smell of snow with its diamond luster.
The torrential downpours typical of the rainy season in Korea, when it was almost hard to breathe.
The crisp fall air, surrounded by brilliant tree leaves while hiking Gwanak Mountain (and how damn delicious a hard-boiled egg tastes when you reach the top and your body is aching for energy).
The cold days at the end of fall, when warm toffee-colored sunlight hit you while a cold breeze shook the last few crisp leaves off the trees.
Nostalgia is the resonance of these visceral memories. It’s not the melancholy in knowing that these experiences are long gone; it’s the joy in remembering that they happened.
Memory: August 3, 2016
F and I are in San Sebastian, Basque country, Spain.
Earlier in the morning, we lie out on the warm sand, under impossibly blue skies and the soothing march of the waves. I go for a swim and the water is perfectly cool. A particularly large wave nudges me to wade in deeper. I giggle and jump right into the next wave. I look back toward the beach and see F laying out on our cute pink beach mat. Near him, a mother is smearing sunscreen on wiggling twin girls who are anxious to run around. A boy is playfully stomping into a wading pool he made in the sand, and he splashes his dad, who sits up from his towel to scold him; the boy sheepishly covers his mouth, and splashes more gently. More people are walking along the water’s edge: couples, teenagers, families, grandparents… Everyone is relaxed, and I notice how people are dressed. Little old ladies wear bikinis, small children are naked, some women are topless. Bodies aren’t covered up and shamed. There are no bulky T-shirts meant to hide imperfections; all bodies are acceptable, and everyone’s got the right to get a decent tan. I feel emboldened by this and remove my own bathing suit top. No one bats an eye, and I can’t help but laugh to myself. Now THIS feels like freedom!
That evening, we go to a small homey restaurant in a quiet corner of the Old Town. Narrow cobblestone streets are lined with pintxo (tapas) bars, tourist shops, and various landmarks. This restaurant is on the second floor of a converted home. We get a bottle of red wine and order the tasting menu: thin sliced jamon, crab-stuffed peppers, seared codfish in garlic oil, sumptuous beef Wellington in cream sauce, and for dessert, cream puffs and leche frita (fried milk). Bellies full, F and I head over to the beach, arm-in-arm. The beach at night is a lovely sight, and the boardwalk is bustling. Street performers attract groups of onlookers, and we stop to watch a flamenco trio performing beautifully. Later, strains from an accordion lead us along our walk. A strangely familiar tickle arises in my throat, and it swells, choking up for an instant; my eyes start to water and I look up at F. In that split instant, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. F hugs me and it’s all so overwhelming, my heart swells, and I’m savoring this glorious moment. My head tips back, and I laugh up into the sky.
My second Fourth of July spent in France was a success; last year we had a barbecue with friends, and this year I had a completely different time. With F away on a fishing weekend, I had all day to myself to enjoy the hot weather.
I walked down to the town center to buy some fresh local vegetables from the farmer’s market. I was pleasantly surprised to find a tag sale was going on at the same time. Walking around the tables at the tag sale, I was brought back to my childhood, when I loved looking them up in the classified section of the newspaper. I’d undoubtedly want to go if it were close by; it was an eternal Saturday morning wish, to hit the tag sales with my mom. So I bought a few cute dishes and a couple of stainless steel pots for a steal.
Past the tables of the tag sale, I got closer to the heart of the market; it was a pretty hot morning, and the windows of the buildings lining the narrow street were all open. The sounds and smells were wonderful. The sound of a tattoo artist’s buzzing needle resounded through the street that led to the farmer’s market: two seemingly contradictory elements that nevertheless coexist. There was a vender selling a variety of dried cured sausages that smelled vaguely like feet when I walked past; nevertheless, they looked quite appetizing. Another man was unsuccessfully trying to hawk loaves of brioche to passersby. I caught earfuls of the practiced rhetoric of salespeople as I walked by the shops: the carefully practiced jokes and puns and choreographed sales pitches.
In the heart of the market, as always, there were fruit and vegetable stands, some proudly displaying signs that show the food is locally produced and organic. Vibrant produce was laid out and waiting to be selected: deep red tomatoes, radishes, broccoli, cucumbers… One vendor was selling freshly shucked oysters, and the briny ocean smell caught my nose. There was also a man with a truck outfitted with two rotisserie racks, with whole chickens rotating and roasting, giving off a fabulous smell; underneath the chickens, whole potatoes were cooking in a tray, caramelized with chicken drippings. One of these days, I need to buy one of those chickens; if they taste half as good as they smell, I’ll be in roast chicken heaven.
I went home and worked on a couple recipes and killed time until… nighttime canoeing. 9 of us went down to a canoe rental place, right on the bank of an offshoot of the Loire River. By 11:30 pm, we were on the water for a two-hour casual paddle. The water was so warm, it was nearly body temperature after a hot day. It was also quite shallow: our oars occasionally scraped the sand at the bottom. We spent two hours canoeing in a black-and-white world tinted with blue, a bright carpet of stars in the sky. The moon was nearly full, and at certain bends in the river it illuminated us with surprising brilliance. It was so bright it looked like a far-off halogen light bulb. Funny how the moonlight can play tricks on your eyes. Huge dried fallen trees looked like beastly dinosaur skeletons on the sandbanks in the river. Bleached white by the sun, they looked like ancient fossils of mythical creatures: a large dragon head, a creature from a Maurice Sendak book… beautiful. The river was full of beauty that night. Happy Fourth of July indeed.
It’s summertime. I don’t know what day it is, nor does it matter. Summer days tended to flow from one to the next, and the memories stick together as if I lived a whole summer’s worth of adventures in one long day. I wake up with a start, with the thrill of excitement at starting a new day. The first lazy rays of sunlight seep into my room, bringing the silent air of mystery that I’m enamored with. Nobody else is awake, nothing moves. I’ve got this special time all to myself.
I slide out of bed, barefoot and already dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. No need to change, I’m fine just as I am. From the kitchen I grab a little plastic bowl, then slip on my sandals and quietly sneak out the back door into the garden.
The sky is still an inviting shade of bluish-violet, which means today I’ll be able to see the watercolor sky redden until the first shock of sunlight spills over the horizon. That special kind of sunlight that tints everything it touches and makes it glow, like I’m looking through rose-colored glasses. The birds are yawning out their first peeps and chirps of the day. As the sky warms gradually, the birdsong swells and the air fills to saturation. The smell of the dew on the grass is uplifting, and the unmoving air leaves a refreshing chill on my skin.
I like being here alone. The presence of anyone else here in my special world would undo its perfection.
In this calm, still moment, I don’t even want to breathe too loudly, for fear of disrupting the sanctity of it all. The whispers of last night’s dreams are still in my head, and reality feels abstract. Time is immaterial, and it feels like anything and everything is possible. I feel capable and independent, like I have no limitations and the world is mine to discover.
I walk slowly and deliberately toward the back of the garden, where the raspberry bushes sit. The raspberries wink at me from their hiding spots, scattered among vibrant leaves. The color combination is deeply attractive: variegated shades of green leaves and beautifully arched stems are punctuated with the luminous red berries.
I pick the first raspberry of the day and pop it straight into my mouth: the seeds crunch and the fragrant, sweet, slightly sour berry flavor overpowers my taste buds. The flavor is so concentrated that I can both smell and taste it at the same time. Glorious. I continue to hunt through the thorny vines to fill my plastic bowl with more. I love the satisfying feeling of a freshly-ripened raspberry slipping off the vine–to me, they look like little crocheted hats meant for garden gnomes.
As my bowl fills, I dream about the raspberry waffles that Mom will make in my favorite Bugs Bunny waffle iron. Maybe she’ll let me pour the batter and make my own waffles today…
The flavor of that first berry fades, and I consecrate myself to my task. The day has begun.
C’est au milieu de l’été, un temps impossible à préciser : tous les jours coulent les uns après les autres, et le temps n’a pas d’importance. Les premiers rayons du soleil teignent le ciel et les oiseaux signalent l’arrivée du matin. Au début, leur gazouillis ne sont que des bâillements. Mais progressivement, ils se lèvent et le bruit devient de plus en plus effréné. “Coucou, lève-toi ! Coucou, lève-toi !”
Bien entendu. On se lève avec l’excitation de saluer un nouveau jour qui coule dans nos veines. C’est un dynamisme du corps, presque comme s’il s’était levé avec une chatouille. On s’habille vite et sans bruit avec les vêtements qui sont les plus proches du lit, et on prend la première gorgée d’eau, la dernière qui reste dans le verre de cette nuit. Regardant par la fenêtre, on voit que le ciel a une nuance bleue-violette parfaite ; le violet va rougir doucement, et on va pouvoir observer le changement. On profite de cette lumière, cette teinture qui n’appartient qu’aux matins estivaux, comme si on mettait des lunettes roses.
C’est parti. Bouger le corps, ça fait du bien. On sort en douce, et on entre dans le jardin. Il ne faut pas aller plus loin que notre propre jardin ; voir le visage d’un autre casserait cette ambiance parfaite. On s’étire comme un chat au soleil, et ensuite, au boulot. Les framboisiers attendent. En s’approchant, les framboises à peine mûres semblent luire. C’est trop difficile de résister à la tentation, et la première framboise cueillie va directement à la bouche ; la baie éclate, les graines croquent, et on déguste le jus sucré, acide, parfumé.
Dans cette instant d’une calme immobilité, on hésite même à respirer trop fort. Le temps est immatériel, et tout est possible. Les traces de nos rêves de cette nuit n’ont pas encore disparu, et la réalité est encore floue. On se sent capable de tout faire…mais il n’y en a pas besoin. Cette sacrée bouchée prise au moment parfait est une hostie à savourer. On va décider le programme d’aujourd’hui après une tournée de gaufres aux framboises. Après avoir avalé la bouchée, on retourne au boulot. La journée a commencé.