more about smells

not too long ago I wrote a blog post that listed the smells I smelled in Vietnam, and let me say: it was a struggle. then I read this Atlantic article about smells, and words for smells, and how we english-speakers don’t really have any (only three), and I felt better.

from the article:

Every sense has its own “lexical field,” a vast palette of dedicated descriptive words for colors, sounds, tastes, and textures. But smell? In English, there are only three dedicated smell words—stinky, fragrant, and musty—and the first two are more about the smeller’s subjective experience than about the smelly thing itself.

All of our other scent descriptors are really descriptions of sources: We say that things smell like cinnamon, or roses, or teen spirit, or napalm in the morning. The other senses don’t need these linguistic workarounds. We don’t need to say that a banana “looks like lemon;” we can just say that it’s yellow.

but there are other languages that do have a scent-based vocabulary, with words for the smell of petrol and smoke and words for bloody smells that attract tigers. so I am petitioning for more words. more words, please. let’s do it.

short story mixtape vol. 2: journeys + getaways

getting back on that fiction beat now that I’m home. but still in transition back to normal life. so here’s an attempt to bridge the gap: a list of short stories about voyages and vacationers and travelers and getaways.

descent of the aquanauts kathryn davis: a group of young girls at the beach are regaled with the tale of the aquanauts, as told by Janice, an older woman with a perfect golden-brown tan. the moon and the ocean are major players, but under the surface, Davis writes and youth and vulnerability in precise and original language that pops a punch.

a romantic weekend mary gaitskill: the title says it all (or does it? wink): a man and a woman go on a little getaway. Gaitskill is fearless and raw and edgy and funny in this brilliant story about relationships and power, and that gap between what we think and feel and what we say and do.

rock springs richard ford: also about a couple on a getaway. but a different kind of getaway. in a stolen getaway car. with a child and a dog. the narrator, the unforgettable, heartbreakingly well-intentioned but inescapably flawed Earl, gets a tattoo that says FAMOUS TIMES to commemorate it all. and you’ll want to, too.

interpreter of maladies jhumpa lahiri: this often anthologized story follows the Das family on vacation in India, as seen through the eyes of their hired driver, Mr. Kapasi. Lahiri’s eye for details and rich prose brings the vivid setting to life, and makes these complicated characters feel fully, believably human.

love and hydrogen jim shepherd: two star-crossed lovers journey from Germany to the United States on the doomed Hindenburg. the ending is obvious (it crashes!), but little else is. Shepherd’s unique knack for bringing historic details to life in fiction is on full display here, as is his winning humor.


on memory

after another 24 hours of traveling, I am home. I settle in and begin to unpack. for the first few days I wake up in the middle of the night not knowing what country I’m in. and already I wonder: what will I remember most?

memory is strange. it picks and chooses. it changes moments, maneuvers them, works them. things fade, and others become brighter.

I know that the difficulties will fade. things that once held the weight of the world, moments of fear and frustration and discomfort – standing frozen in the middle of the street in unceasing traffic, showing up 24 hours late for an overnight train,  the sight of a spider the size of a baseball scurrying up my apartment wall – will become less so, become lighter. have already become funny in retrospect, thankfully.

the good things, the truly unique and exceptional, will become brighter. the first bowl of bún riêu. the first sip of vietnamese coffee. the look of the streets at night on the back of a motorbike. the mountains in Mai Châu, the beaches in Hội An, the blue-green water in Ha Long Bay.

there are things that will become lost entirely, and it is sad to admit that the loss is inevitable. but writing it down slows this process. even when the writing is a simple recollection – I did this, and then I did that – there is a kind of magic to it: it pins the moment in place, leaves a mark, a record. I’m in awe of that magic. I’m grateful for it, too.





Mai Châu

Mai Châu is about four hours outside of Hanoi, in northwest Vietnam, but as all the guide books and tourist literature will tell you: it feels a world away. 

it’s a bit of a cheesy ploy, a blatant advertising tactic, but it works. I am sold. I’m looking for a break, again, from the dizzying pace of Hanoi, a city I love, but a challenging place to live nonetheless.

A ride through twisting and turning mountain roads leads to the lush rural valley town of Mai Châu. I check into the Mai Châu Lodge and go on a small group bicycle tour through the nearby villages of Ban Lac and Pom Coong. we ride on dirt roads through rice paddies, and the fields are vibrant shades of bright green, lighter green, yellow, brown. we pass by stilt houses made of bamboo and timber. we ride alongside cattle and hear roosters crowing. we pass people sorting through grains of rice on bamboo mats. on the horizon, always, looms the jagged outline of the mountains.

the villages have adapted to the call of tourists: many open up their homes for homestays and sell handicrafts for souvenirs, gorgeous embroidered bags and scarves in rich, bright colors. as we bike through we see many women outside working at looms. it is a fascinating juxtaposition of old and new, of traditional and modern, like so much of Vietnam.

the lodge at night is every bit the peace and quiet I hoped it would be. in the morning I wake up feeling more clear-headed and rested than I have in some time.

family dinner

Hien, my airB&B host, invites me to a family dinner, a feast on the anniversary of his father’s passing. this is done annually, this kind of remembrance, called a death anniversary.

there is nonstop cooking for two days, and then Hien’s family fills the main room of the house. I sit quietly and eat at a table of women, next to Hien’s wife, Hoa. aside from light conversation with Hien and Hoa, I am a silent listener. most of the talk is in Vietnamese, of course, so I smile and try to look grateful. the women smile back as they fill and refill my bowl: spring rolls, prawns, green papaya salad, boiled chicken, sauteed greens, smoked ham, mushroom soup. it is all incredible.

when I notice everyone looking at me, Hien tells me they say I look very young. “18,” he says. I shake my head – no, no, no. I tell Hien that I’m 28, and my birthday has just passed. he says, “ah, 1987,” and he tells me in the Vietnamese zodiac this is the year of the cat, and that his mother is the year of the cat, too.

after dinner we sit and drink tea and eat watermelon. I’m left wishing I could express all the gratitude I feel – how honored I am to sit at the table with them. but even without the language barrier I don’t think words would be enough.



my first day alone here, my mother messages me to ask why the weather report for Hanoi (she checks daily, she tells me) does not say sunny or cloudy or chance of rain. instead it says “smoke.”

what does smoke mean? she asks. is Hanoi on fire? after a little research, I find out that it is, in a way: farmers on the outskirts of Hanoi are burning stacks of straw after the rice harvest. as I read the article I see images of many little puffs of smoke rising out of the fields. it’s affected the air quality, which explains the weather report, and why I woke up with a sore throat and stuffed nose.

so my first day is smoky. when I step outside I realize how spoiled I’ve been on the motorbike. I have forgotten how difficult walking can be in this city. the sidewalks are constantly filled with little street food stalls, plastic tables and chairs, and parked motorbikes. the streets are filled with motorbikes, many of them ignoring traffic lights (in Hanoi yellow and red mean “go,” too) and going the wrong way down one-way streets. along the curb are little bags of trash waiting to be picked up by sanitation workers. I am alert, admittedly a little tense.

there are small victories: a freshly baked baguette from the baker around the corner, still warm when it’s placed in my hands. a productive writing day. the time to read four short stories from my best american anthology (2002 edition). not too bad at all.



the best thing in vietnam

is an ice cream cone!! forget history and incredible people and stunning landscapes and architecture and culture! it is this cone. this is it, guys.

the place is called Kem Tràng Tiền. it is a parking garage. I mean that literally: people actually park their motorbikes in the ice cream shop. there’s soft-serve, and then there’s a prepackaged version on a stick, and then there’s this. there is only one flavor: the best most coconut-y coconut you’ve ever tasted. the cone is a thin wafer that’s not too sweet and baked with sesame seeds. one cone is 50 cents. that’s right. you can eat the best thing in Vietnam (also the world, maybe) for 50 cents. here is a picture of me on the best day of my life, the day I discovered this ice cream cone: