15 January 2011

The long & the short of it

[angkor wat]At my right hand: a cereal bowl-sized vessel of coffee, the first from my own press in nearly a month. (Just a few inches closer to my hand: the mouse. This is a digital still life, after all.) To my left, a frostbitten window streaked with postmodern art that will vanish with the dawn. The frozen streaks and whorls hide the haphazard piles of snow outside, piles that my shovel has yet to deal with in their entirety. I hope my neighbors will forgive me.

Just a few days ago I was marinating in sweat, wishing that I could change into shorts but unable to do so, because I was on sacred ground. Specifically, Angkor Wat and its many, many templed neighbors. Before that, it was Vietnam, cooler than Cambodia but with a humidity that escalated to broth-like levels as we moved south. Both were bookended by four surprising days in Hong Kong, a city so insanely hypermodern that one expects to see personal spaceships flitting about, even while inhaling a pile of steamed pork buns in an impossibly crowded 19th-century storefront.

This isn’t a travelogue, though. It’s a reflection. Despite a grueling schedule of tourism (reminder to self: next trip, plan some rest every three days or so) I had some time for such, because for the first time since 2005 I left the house without my laptop. Yes, OK, there was the occasional moment of weakness involving my mobile device, but not often. Not reading (except The Quiet American, and not on an e-reader either), but more importantly not writing (except by pen in an increasingly well-worn journal, and wow has my handwriting deteriorated). Just taking it all in, then using the waning moments of each evening for collation, contextualization, and free-association. You know, like we all used to do before the rush to get our every fleeting and 140-character notion into the grist mill of our personal self-publishing empires.

Did I drink any wine? Yes, rather more than I’d expected to, though this was somewhat a function of the ludicrously lavish hotels at which I stayed, or perhaps just as much the lingering influence of Indochine (the place, not the movie). None of the previous sentence applies to Hong Kong, of course, which needs no post-colonial help with its explosive wine culture. Wineries are right to turn their commercial attention eastward. And Westerners are also right to fear the effect this could have on the cost and availability of their favorite wines, related to which I have a hard truth: it’s not just pointy Bordeaux, folks. The cultish, the quirky, and the natural are quite available, and though Big Dollars aren’t yet being spent on those wines (we need, here, to conveniently ignore Japan, where they already kinda are), at the quantities vs. the populations involved, it won’t take much to reduce everyone else to strict allocations on wines for which we had to beg importers and retailers just a few years ago.

And yes, in case anyone’s wondering, I did drink wine with a snake in it. It was really quite good, actually. I wanted to bring some home, but one can’t always rely on Homeland Security’s well-known sense of whimsy and good humor when it comes to unexpected customs declarations, so I didn’t try.

While I’m not exactly thrilled about coming home to impenetrable winter, some of the comforts of one’s own hearth have greater appeal. I ate well – very well – on this trip, even convincing guides that yes, I really did want to eat the dubiously-sanitized street food elbow-to-jowl with shocked natives. But to be honest, I’m a little sick of rice as a constant companion, and I could probably do without a noodle for a while as well. And prawns, which I think I ate at least twice a day in Vietnam and Cambodia? Not for a while, thanks. Yes, I know most of the world subsists on little more than these staples, and I’m already whining after three short weeks. It’s pathetic of me, and I’m rightfully embarrassed.

It’s not about distaste. I like both rice and noodles, quite a bit. It’s about the comfort of the familiar. Landing at JFK, then stuck in the airport for six hours waiting for a much-delayed flight home, what I craved more than anything was something in the cheeseburger with onion rings genre. Normally, that would be the last thing I’d get at an airport, especially for breakfast (it wasn’t yet 8 a.m.), and yet the yearn was palpable. I admit, to my shame, that I succumbed.

There’s a wine component to this as well. Almost everything I drank on this trip was white. Yes, there was a plurality of seafood, but even the meat dishes went best with aromatic whites (as Mark Ellenbogen proved many years ago), and by the end I was craving a red. At home, my preferences usually run towards the elegant, the transparent, the lively, but what I want now – perhaps after the coffee – is something with brawn and burl alongside a nice, big, fat American-sized steak. (Probably followed, one fears, by a few hours of manly grunting and football watching.)

I often say that I crave difference, that I’m a relentless neophile when it comes to food and wine. I think this is mostly true, but taking me as far out of my element as three weeks in Southeast Asia did shows the limitations of this claim. Presented with the alternative as a norm, I started to wish for the familiar as the alternative. I did not, as I insisted I would before the trip, have phở for breakfast every morning, and Vietnam’s well-regarded skills with French pastry became more and more appealing as the days went on. I succumbed there, too.

(Note for the curious: phở and croissant are not a match made in fusiony heaven.)

This isn’t a paean to there’s-no-place-like-homerism, by the way. I cherish the opportunities I have to travel, to experience difference, to draw what I learn into a (hopefully) ever-expanding redefinition of my own self. It’s an essential part of what and who I am. But kicking that self halfway across the globe gave me the opportunity to turn around and look at the anchors left behind. There’s more than one, and maybe at some future point I’ll see the one I left in Southeast Asia, but they’re there. They, too, are “who I am”…not the branches of the tree, but the roots. Everything changes, but some things stay the same. Faced with the biggest chasm between the two I’ve yet experienced, I’m forced to recognize both.

Is there a point to all this navel-gazing? Yes, actually. As with most of my points, I’ve taken a meandering and verbose path to get there, but the destination is now in sight. Before the holidays, I posted something in haste. Something reactionary. Something hot on the heels of an event. And in the chillier aftermath, I didn’t like the result. I edited, trimmed, edited some more. I still don’t like it, and I’m going to take it down right after I finish this essay.

What I don’t like about it isn’t what it says, necessarily. Another version of its essential points will, I think, rear its wordy head in the near future. It’s just that, looking back at things I’ve written in heat and things I’ve written after consideration, I much prefer the latter. I look at the live-blogging I did from the barbera orgy in the Piedmont and the posts written after my return to the States, and I think the latter are better. More informative, more contextual, less full of the emotions of the moment and the best snark-laden zingers a few minutes of typing peace can generate.

I can do that sort of writing, and can churn out clean content on tight deadline as well as anyone, but it’s rarely my best work. What I do better – my comfort zone, my anchor – is reflection. Consideration. Taking the time to examine an argument from all sides. The slow, winding march to a conclusion, even if it’s the realization that there’s no single conclusion to be reached. Explorations of other forms are interesting and necessary, and they make me a better writer, but this is what I do and who I am. Would this blog be more “bloggy” if I cranked out dozens of shorter posts rather than the occasional novella? Certainly. But doing that is to send the author on a permanent vacation, cutting the anchors and losing sight of land and home. Shorter and alternative forms will appear when they can, and I cannot promise a future without furious broadsides written in haste that are later seen to be ill-considered by all (including the author), but the long, patient stuff is what oenoLogic is and always will be.

Meanwhile, my coffee is getting cold, and enough frost has receded that I can see the shoveling yet to be done, lest my neighbors arrive with threatening pitchforks and torches. A queue of ideas for future blog posts rests, in barely-comprehensible scrawl, amongst the pages of my travel journal. And a fat-bottomed red wine is settling on the kitchen counter, waiting for its beefy demise.

It’s good to be home.

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