Taipei Haikus

23 Dec




Christmas almost here

In Taipei alone, lonely,

Ready for takeoff.


Maokong Jaunt, up high,

Buy sweet potatoes to eat

Store in pocket, warm.


Blind masseurs at work

In a booth, railway station

My neck, pressure point.



Grace Warned Me

18 Aug

Grace told me that Taiwan is a food paradise. Grace should know. Although she now resides in Warsaw, Poland, which is where I met her, at St. Paul’s English Speaking Parish, Grace comes from Taiwan. I never knew this, of course, until Grace came up to my husband after Mass one Sunday during which our parish priest had announced my imminent departure for Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where I was off to teach 4th grade for two years.

I hadn’t known Grace was Taiwanese. I knew very little about her except that she was just about the bravest person I had ever seen in action.

I’m not sure my husband was in the congregation the day Grace converted to Catholicism. I’m not even sure what the ceremony is called, and I’m pretty sure that during a lifetime of church attendance, I’ve witnessed only one conversion: Grace’s.

I grew up in a town where most people I knew were either Irish-American or Italian American, and all were Catholic. In short: There were no people to convert.

Anyway, back to Grace’s conversion. Grace weighs, about 80 pounds, if that. Her English, at the time of her conversion, was at a beginner’s level. Regardless, part of the ceremony included her reciting, by heart, at least one very long prayer–perhaps it was the Creed– a prayer I’ve said my entire life but could not, even at age 53, recite from memory, anymore than I could stand on my head.

Grace, however, all 80 pounds of her, recited the Creed–every word of it, from memory– in a barely audible voice, as her body visibly trembled. She did this in front of well over 100 parishioners.

Grace didn’t miss a word. Even though I couldn’t recite it myself without an occasional glance at a missalette, I could detect a mistake a mile away.

Grace made no mistakes. If her recitation wasn’t the Holy Spirit in action, I’m not sure what is.

Well more than a year after Grace’s conversion, when I was about to depart Warsaw for Kaohsiung, Grace bounded over to me to tell me  that she was from Taiwan. Tiny Grace told me: “It’s a paradise. A food paradise.”

And so it is. My intention is to provide a window now and again.

I Believe I Just Signed on to Coach 7th Grade Boys’ Basketball

7 Aug

That’s all I have to say. The season starts March 17, an auspicious day for the Irish, and ends May 2. The tournament is May 3. The after school activities people assure me that I do not have to know anything about basketball. Apparently two high school students also coach, and I am more of a figurehead. Or so I tell myself.

Please comment if you’ve ever signed on for something as silly.

A Locavore Walks into Costco

5 Aug

I realized I lacked  a bowl and more critically, a spoon, sometime between purchasing  10 pounds of Old Fashioned Quaker Oats and four pounds of pumpkin flax granola and the time I deposited them onto my kitchen counter.

All told, I’ve probably been to Costco all of 10 times in my life. This was my first visit to one in Asia. I have mixed, but predominantly negative feelings about malls and the businesses they promote. While I love food, and Costco has a vast selection of delectables, at the end of the day, I’m not a big-box store type of gal. They are just  wrong on so many levels. In addition to being bad for small business, Costco is antithetical to locavores, those of us, for environmental, lifestyle and health reasons, choose to eat locally sourced food. (One’s carbon footprint shrinks considerably when food is not shipped long distances and when protective packaging is kept to a minimum.)

Without a doubt, an outfit like Costco is the antithesis of eating local. On that basis alone, I feel badly even glancing in the direction of one, much less spending money there. But hey, here I am, Day 4,  in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and my boss and my boss’s boss are taking great trouble to accommodate  a gaggle of new hires, spouses and their children by bringing them to places like Costco to get us set up so we can teach kids next Monday. Who am I to entertain the ethics of big-box stores?

In I go, fueled with the advice that while shopping at Costco might be environmentally hazardous, at least it has good prices.

Well, we all know how that works. Sure, Costco has good prices. I’m just not sure how good they are for the items I chose to buy. All I know is that I walked out with $2041 NTD, roughly 70 U.S. dollars, worth of items, and I don’t have much to show for it. (A bit of context here. While in suburban New Jersey, $40  buys you a gallon of milk, fruit, bread and some sandwich and breakfast makings, in Poland, you could lay in a substantial larder for that amount of money. With $70, you’d have meals for a week.)

Four tubes of Sensodyne toothpaste, 36 servings of granola and 110 portions of porridge, later, I emerge from Costco. Oh, and how could I forget to mention the 13.5 pounds of baking soda for the odor under my kitchen sink? My boss’s boss, who is, by his own admission, an old school smart aleck, reminded me that I had to remain in my job through the consumption of the latter item, which, by the way, is made in the U.S.A. and imported into Taiwan by the Australian division of Costco. Surely my carbon footprint just grew to equal Big Foot’s.

As I gripped my carton loaded with granola, oatmeal, dried blueberries– presumably weeks  of breakfasts–my colleagues amassed rigatoni, chickens, salad, cheddar cheese, steaks, tiny American grapes, blueberries, cream puffs, spices, salt and pepper cellars, Cornflakes, spaghetti sauce, hamburger meat, carrots, peppers, dried seaweed snacks (great choice, Yin!) and chocolate covered almonds. Clearly they were armed for more than breakfast. That made me second-guess my choices.

In addition to my environmentally anihilating purchases, were my Costco choices strategically wrong for my own and my future students’ well being? Would I end up walking in circles in my neighborhood each night searching for dinner while my well-fed teaching counterparts had sufficient time to tweak their lesson plans? That remained to be seen.

I don’t plan on cooking here in Taiwan. My aim is to immerse myself in Kaohsiung’s eating-out culture. (Judging by the hordes loading up at Costco on a Sunday afternoon, however, who knows the future of that habit.)

Meanwhile, of course, I’m too hungry to step outside the door of my apartment, so despite my lack of utensils and a bowl, I dump some pumpkin flax granola in a tupperware container, fish out a spoon the size of half a teaspoon from a set of cutlery I purchased from indigenous artisans in the hills outside of Kaohsiung. There, I did buy local today. Costco not withstanding, my guilt is somewhat stripped away.

Please leave comments that share your thoughts about eating “local” or the moral dilemmas shopping at Costco and other big-box stores. Or, just leave a comment saying hello. (Apologies for any difficulties Google Chrome users are experiencing when leaving comments.)

Why Does My Smartphone Make Me Feel So Stupid?

3 Aug

In some ways, I’m first in line to embrace technology. As a freelance writer, graduate student and now teacher, cloud computing has proved life-changing for me. Because of it, no matter what the hardware or my location, as long as I have an internet connection, I can access my all my work and personal documents and files. I mean, what’s better than that?  A portable, weightless office is pretty sweet.

My enthusiasm for technology is quelled only by my inability to adapt to it quickly enough. The reality is that my learning curve is often very steep.

Take the smartphone Daisy handed me on the way in from the airport when I landed in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, three days ago. Practically everyone I know in Warsaw and the States uses a smartphone. I don’t even have to comment on the ubiquitous usage here in tech-savvy Asia. I, however, have not used one before. It’s been high on my list of things to acquire, but that hasn’t happened–until now.

Here’s a snapshot into my adaptability struggles. And keep this to yourself: It took me two days to figure out how to answer my smartphone. Literally.

I know. I know. Everyone has a period of settling in with a piece of new technology. What I dislike so intensely, however, is the feeling that somehow the pain and humiliation of not being able to use the technology immediately is somehow more acute for me.

I believe this phenomenon is known as “terminal uniqueness” in 12 Step programs. We think that our case is different. While our friends might be momentarily frustrated with something like their new smartphone, we believe that only we are incapable of ever mastering it. Only we are experiencing the gut wrenching humiliation of wanting to slip into the nearest and deepest hole to be swallowed up so that no one can witness ineptitudes such as an inability to turn the device on, much less set it up to receive data and use the Maps App to guide the Mandarin speaking taxi driver to our destination.

What is your experience in adapting to new technology? Do you ever feel terminally unique?

A Return to Urban Density

3 Aug

My last city of residence, Warsaw, Poland’s capital, is home to 1.7 million people– tiny compared to New York City, my home of 25 years, and her 8.2 million inhabitants–and my new city, Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Kaohsiung boasts a populace of 2.8 million, and given my downtown location, it represents a return to true urban living. My Saska Kepa neighborhood in Warsaw was almost bucolic, with apple, pear, plum, cherry, walnut, hazelnut, apricots and grapes growing profusely.

For the first time in my life, here in Kaohsiung, I’m living in a high rise building (on the 13th floor, no less.) Thirteen, by the way, is not an unlucky number as it is in America. I was told that four is an unlucky number in Chinese, because it sounds like the word for death.

Save for a scattering of photographs, we took our Kaohsiung apartment sight unseen, as we were two continents away and without time to view real estate once I was to arrive here. We giggled when we put together our apartment wish list:

  • maximum outdoor space
  • lots of light
  • dog friendly
  • ocean view

The last criteria was my husband’s idea, and while we can’t see the Taiwan Straits from our apartment, we do have a lovely view of Lotus Lake and the Dragon and Tiger Temples from our front balcony. (Props. to Lech for even hinting at a water view.) That’s what I love about the power of two: The ability to think beyond the narrow scope of just one set of eyes.

As far as outdoor space, we ended up with two balconies. Two balconies feels like a 40 acre tract compared to my beloved but postage stamp sized, 2nd floor outdoor perch in our Warsaw home. Unlike there, where two is a crowd, in Kaohsiung, our balcony runs the length of the apartment. My number one goal is to get it habitable. Urban or not, I’m going to aim for a subtropical paradise at #13F. I’m just itching to buy outdoor furniture and plants. But first, I’m watching what the locals do.

Part of the beauty of dense urban living is the snapshots one gleans of neighboring patios and balconies. My new colleague Dawn told me that Taiwanese, particularly the older generation (which I suppose includes me these days) loves their plants. Dawn got a dreamy look in her eyes and her voice changed when she mentioned Kaohsiung’s weekend plant and flower market.

I’m not sure I can wait a full seven days to get there. And where is my husband when I need him to haul my flora?

What are your thoughts on dense urban living? Urban gardening?

I met an old soul yesterday

24 Jul

My sister’s new friend, a downstairs neighbor close to half her age, is such an old soul.

I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of an old soul, too, and hence never gave much thought to others with this characteristic. Now that I’ve crossed the border into chronological middle age, however, I suppose I’m more likely to  appreciate the phenomenon.

Do you know this term: old soul?  An old soul is someone who can relate intimately to people regardless of their generation. They are at once mature, and yet at the same time perpetually young. They often like the company of people far older and can sometimes feel awkward with their peers, whom they see as more closely constricted by their date of birth, where they went to high school, their alma mater and the choices of  profession, spouse and geographical location they’ve exercised.

Old souls, however, seem capable of floating between generations and are less circumscribed by geography and temporal circumstances.

Last night, I was blown away by 33-year old Sara, someone 20 years younger, with whom I felt no generational gap.

It’s reassuring to be around an old soul, yet to be even discussing the term, when no even talks about the phenomenon, feels odd. Last night I realized  what a gift an old soul is to those of us whose chronological age is stacking up. I think being around someone who’s sense of humor transcends the generations, for example, is somewhat of a spiritual experience. Meeting people you immediately like is always a gift, but doubly so when you know they’ll outlive you by decades.

Come to think of it: I met Sara on the 110th anniversary of the birth of Else Stanton, one of my dearest friends who was twice my age.

Do you have any old souls in your life? How did you meet them?

What would Uncle Stanton do?

23 Jul

My mother was the oldest of 12 children in a family of five sisters and seven brothers. Uncle Stanton is my mother’s youngest brother, number 11 of the 12 siblings.

One of the many things I like about Uncle Stanton is the how he deals with other people when they haven’t exactly performed their job up to par. I thought of Uncle Stanton on the cab ride home from JFK last night.

It was 4:30 a.m. “my” time by the time I weaved my way through a long line of JFK arrivals and got a cab. I’m of the generation who actually likes to say a few words to the cab driver, especially when I arrive “home” after being outside of the country for awhile.

“How are you doin’?” I asked.


“Excuse me?” he replied finally.

The tarmac was wet when the 767 Dreamliner touched down last night after the nine hour flight from Warsaw, and it was still drizzling as the taxi pulled out onto the Van Wyck Expressway. It was dark and there was construction traffic. As we limped along toward Laguardia Airport, despite my extreme fatigue, I began to notice that something was not quite right with the cabbie. He was not using the windshield wipers. The vehicle was crawling along at 30 mph when others were whizzing by us at 50 mph.

What would Uncle Stanton do? I asked myself.

Uncle Stanton speaks up and gets things corrected. I tend to be more laid back and complacent. I could have closed my eyes and dosed in the cab, but instead I confronted the driver. As I sat watching the meter and calculating the driver’s tip, I could hear Uncle Stanton saying, “Why would I tip him fifteen percent if he is doing a bad job?”

“Is there something wrong with your windshield wipers?” I asked.

His reply was something to the effect that he could see. He did, however, turn them up a notch. The driver’s left turn signal was on throughout the journey along the Grand Central Parkway as he seemingly struggled to stay within the lanes. He wasn’t drunk; perhaps he was just tired.

After what seemed like an eternity, he navigated the exit ramp of the Triborough Bridge. I finally had enough courage to ask more questions.

“Is there something wrong with your vehicle?” I asked as every other car in the borough passed us.

“Are you a new driver?” I continued, in a respectful manner.

“No, the roads are wet, and I’m driving slowly.”

No kidding, but there is such a thing as driving too slowly on a highway and thus creating a hazard.

As we headed down the East Side Drive at a painful pace, he started volunteering more concerns about the wet pavement. I thought: Maybe he just had terrible eyesight. Maybe he is desperately poor and strongly in need of this job that I am questioning his ability to perform.

At East 97th Street, he failed to take the turn that would allow him to cross through Central Park. I kept my mouth shut. As he inched his way across East 96th Street toward Fifth Avenue, he’d just stop in the middle of the block when the taillights in front of him were 3/4 of the way further along the block. I muttered under my breath.

He really did not seem to notice how badly he was driving. “Why are you stopped?” I asked, my voice rising in annoyance. “You need to pull up to the cars in front of you.” He pointed the nose of the engine and gunned the accelerator.

“I’m going to report you,” I warned.

“For what?” he countered.

“For reckless driving.”

He became angry and  started to shout back at me as he crossed the empty crosspark drive at Eighty Sixth Street, I thought: I hope I make it to my sister’s in one piece.

Not only was I not going to tip this guy, I was going to ask for the receipt and report him to the taxi and limosine  commission.

“I don’t care,” the driver shouted at me.

“That’s obvious,” I replied.

Eventually we arrived at Riverside Drive and West 78th Street. I told him which door to stop in front of. He continued past it. Finally, at the corner, he stopped.

“I need a receipt,” I said, pulling out three twenties.

I wondered whether he would pull away with my three pieces of luggage. I got out and walked to the rear of the vehicle. My heart was pounding.

“Here is your change,” he said, passing me three singles.

He pulled the three cases out of the trunk. I dragged two up on to the curb, leaving the largest in the street. I retrieved it and a group of guys in t-shirts and shorts passed me as I tried to wheel all three bags to the door of the apartment building.

“Do you need some help?” one asked.

“Yes, thanks,” I replied.

I was home.

I don’t know what Uncle Stanton would have done in my situation. He probably would have discussed the dangers of the driver’s method with him. I didn’t have the patience.

I wasn’t sure I did the right thing in confronting him. I don’t know if I’ll take the time to report him.

What would you have done?

Fitting it all into one suitcase and a carry on

22 Jul

Four years ago in May I landed in Warsaw with a 60 pound Portuguese water dog named Jersey, two suitcases and a carry on bag. Thus started my life in Polska.

Right now I find myself strewing the clothes and other items I’ve accrued during that period all around the bedroom as I attempt to pack one suitcase and one carry-on to head back to New York for a short stop before winging my way over to Taiwan for two years.

The husband and the Portuguese water dog are sensible. They have no packing to do. They are waiting out the storms that plague Taiwan in August. They promise me that they’ll join me sometime later in the fall. Hmmm.

But back to the suitcases. Packing is an excruciating exercise in decision making, especially when you’re aiming to fit it all in one suitcase. For me, it’s involved creating tables in Google drive outlining my teaching wardrobe. There’s a table for extremely hot weather wear and a table for slightly less hot weather wear. Decision making involves silly things like the brand new full bottle of body lotion. I look at, pick it up and consider its weight and realize that in a sub-tropical climate with 70 percent humidity, moisturizer is probably not a priority. I think I’ll leave the body lotion behind.

She’ll steal your food and take up most of your bed

21 Jul

My husband is attending his first 100th birthday party this week in the south of Poland. No dogs invited.

Perhaps you would like to have Jersey visit your house for an overnight or two? Things you need to know about Jersey:

  • Unsupervised food is fair game. She can steal a pork chop off a dinner plate without even disturbing the symmetry of the place setting.
  • Timing.  Jersey can enter a stranger’s house and within minutes liberate the Sunday roast off the kitchen counter. (I didn’t make that one or any of these up.)
  • And least you doubt it, Jersey can size up a cheese plate and  make a beeline for the roquefort before you have time to say “crackers.”
  • Don’t even try to serve a Spanish omelette. When the doorbell rings and guests arrive, Jersey sees it as her Portuguese water dog duty to remove the Spanish omelettes from the menu with one fell swoop.
  • Least you think otherwise, Jersey actually does receive her own rations. And Lord help you if you’re late in serving them. If Jersey does not receive her lunch time (the dog eats three meals a day) ice berg lettuce topped with a 1/4 cup of chow when she desires it, she will treat you to a chorus of vocalized begging such as you never heard. You’re powerless. Just give her the food.
  • Dinner napkin larceny is Jersey’s crime of choice. She innocently takes her position under the dining table. Unbeknownst to the uninitiated, she is really scouting laps for the most accessible paper napkin. I’ve seen it happen time and again. A guest is sitting there quietly enjoying the fare when suddenly the guest twitches and says, “Oh,” having felt something snatched from the lap as our black hairy beast backs out from under the table, joyful  with her spoils.
  • Least you think you’d be in for an unpleasant dog sitting experience, let me assure you, that although she’s mischievous, Jersey is a charmer. There is just one more thing: The Tail. Portuguese water dogs generally have an upstanding, powerful rear appendage that swings back and forth, the greater the dog’s excitement and engagement. If you’d like a little gratuitous violence,  simply place Jersey within proximity of a coffee table filled with crystal wine glasses and it becomes like a bowling lane filled with pins destined to be swept aside. You may want to hold your glasses.

There, I think you’ve been somewhat warned.

Got a dog who’s the life of the party? Tell us.