May
22
2011

Conversations with a Barber: On Fate and Fortune Tellers

“You here for a reason,” Hiep the barber said. “Here, in San Francisco. This shop. This seat.”

He stopped cutting and stood back. “I don’t know why,” he continued. “But there is reason.”

“Ah, you mean like fate?” I asked.

“Yes, fate.” He paused again and gestured to himself. “This what I believe. I do not make others believe too. This just what I believe.”

“That’s okay. I happen to agree.”

He smiled. “I not always like this. I grow up religious in Vietnam. But this what always make sense to me.”

“I tell you a story,” he continued. “It sound crazy, but it true.”

He cleared his throat and focused his gaze on me through the mirror.

“When I was boy in Vietnam, uncle take me to fortune teller. He tell me I must come. But I don’t believe in fortune teller. I think: waste of time.”

He cut a few more snips. Though this haircut was taking longer then usual, I didn’t mind. It was a fascinating conversation.

“The fortune teller was blind. Cannot see anything. She take my hands and tell me my past, my present, my future. What she told me about past, I do not believe. I say, ‘That not true. You make it up.'”

His gaze narrowed. “She say, ‘Talk to your mother. You will know I am right.’ So I talk to my mother. She ask me how I know these things. I tell her fortune teller tell me. And you know what?”

He paused. Eyes fixed on mine.

“Everything true. Fortune teller know things no one else know. Even me. Only my mother know.”

He sighed and started trimming my sideburns.

“But still, I don’t believe in fortune teller. But tell you what. When I come to this country, I go to friend’s party. They have fortune teller. My wife go and talk to her. I don’t go. I play cards instead. Because I don’t believe.”

Hiep paused and used the blow dryer to whisk away some loose hairs. Then he continued.

“The fortune teller tell my wife, ‘Bring your husband here. You must bring him here.’ She come get me. I say, ‘No, I don’t believe. I want to play cards.’ But she keep tell me, ‘Come, come, the fortune teller say bring you here.'”

He shook his head with a smile. “She stubborn like me. So I go. But I don’t go into room. I stand outside, tell fortune teller, ‘I don’t believe you. I don’t want listen. Stop telling my wife to bring me here.’ Fortune teller say, ‘Okay, you stand there. I don’t care. You just listen to what I say.'”

His eyes widened. “And she tell me same thing first fortune teller tell me. Fortune teller from Vietnam. Exact same thing!”

I blinked. “Are you sure? The first fortune teller was many years ago, right? How can you remember all that?”

Hiep shook his head. “I remember. I remember because her prediction all come true. Future, what she predict, come true. I don’t want to believe, but it come true!”

“Wow…”

“This fortune teller want to tell me more. She say, ‘I tell you future.’ I say, ‘No. No. I tell you why.'”

He stood back again. Cleared his throat. Focused his eyes on mine.

“I don’t want to hear fortune teller because I don’t want to know future. I want to be surprised. Understand? I don’t want to know when I die. Not meant for me to know. When it happen, it happen. I cannot change it. Knowing only make worse. Understand?”

I nodded. “I do, I do. You do believe in the fortune teller’s predictions, but you don’t want to acknowledge it, because you would prefer to be surprised. So it’s not that you don’t believe in her, it’s that you do, but don’t want to.”

Hiep smiled. “Yes. I cannot believe. But I know it. I cannot change prediction. Whatever will happen will happen. So why know?”

“So you don’t believe in free will? You believe that everything is preordained?”

He smiled again. “Yes, there are choice. Some choice. But we not meant to know. We cannot know. Why you here, in this chair? There is reason. Maybe to hear this talk. Maybe for me to have this talk. I don’t know. We cannot know. But it happen for reason. That all I know.”

I waited until he finished trimming the back of my head, then nodded. “Whatever the reason, I am glad fate gave me this talk. It is very interesting.”

Hiep beamed. “For me too. I am glad to fate for this talk too.”


May
15
2011

The Adventures of Mike & Mia: Testing Ourselves in Cinque Terre

“How do you two like Italy so far?” asked the friendly American at the next table.

“We love it!” we replied, and rattled off all the sights we’ve seen so far.

“Ah, that’s great,” he nodded. “You know, they say a good test of a relationship is traveling together. The way you deal with all the heartache and troubles of getting lost, deciding where to go, dealing with each other’s pickiness and all that. It’s a true test.”

Mia and I glanced at each other. We knew exactly what he was talking about.

(Cue wavy image that signals the intro to a memory sequence.)

We started out from our hotel in Monterosso al Mare around 11:00 AM, after a late breakfast. It was brisk yet sunny. We were psyched. The hikes between each of the five towns of Cinque Terre only an hour or two. More if you take your time or the trail is crowded. We were experienced hikers and aimed to go through all five towns in a day. Ambitious, sure, but sometimes you gotta aim high, right?

As soon as we set off to the Sentiero Azzurro (“Light Blue Trail”), we passed a couple headed in the opposite direction.

“The trail is closed,” they said solemnly.

“What?!”

“They blocked off the trail right back there. No one can go through this way.”

We exchanged glances, then followed them back to town. In the town center, the tourist information office confirmed that the Blue Trail – as it’s commonly called in English – was indeed closed.

“For how long??” another tourist shouted.

“At least until end of the season,” said the representative.

“That’s absurd! We flew all this way to do this trail! It can’t be closed!”

“I’m very sorry ma’am. There have been landslides on the trail. It is not safe. It will be opened again once it is safe to hike. You can come back then.”

“We’re not going to come back! This is absurd!”

Can you guess the nationality of that tourist? If you guessed American, sadly, you are correct.

Mia stepped up to the representative. “Excuse me. Is the High Trail still open?”

“Yes.”

“Great! How can we get there?” The Sentiero Rosso (“High Trail”) is an alternate way to get to each town. It is higher up the mountain, a more strenuous hike, and unlike the Blue Trail, free. Travelers can also get to each town by train, ferry, and car, though the Blue Trail is by far the most scenic and famous route.

The representative kindly pointed out the trailhead on a map. We thanked her and left. The angry American was still huffing and puffing, having seemingly not heard a thing we said.

We left for the High Trail and found the trailhead easily. It was an uphill dirt path. And quite a climb. The trail meandered and swayed. Then broke into switchbacks. Our quads were burning.

“Burning fat, burning calories,” Mia chanted. I love that exercise chant of hers. Funny and motivational, just what a burning quad needs to hear.

“Burning fat, burning calories,” I joined in. “Burning fat, burning calories, burning fat, burning calories…”

There’s a lot of trail between Monterosso and the next town, Vernazza. Especially up in the High Trail. Eventually, the trail forked. One led to a sanctuary higher up the hill. The other appeared to head to Vernazza. “Appeared to” are the operative words in that sentence. Following that fork led us to a paved street and over several bridges, before dropping us off at a dead end. Crap.

I’ll spare you the rest of the agonizing details. In a nutshell: we got lost. We wandered back and forth, trying to find the High Trail, or just some kind of trail to Vernazza. It wasn’t until we realized we were almost doubling-back to Monterosso that we finally remembered – ah ha, the little white and red trail markers! A guidebook had advised us to follow these not-always-visible trail markers. Doing so led us up to the sanctuary, and from there we found our way. Four and a half hours later.

To say we were a little frustrated, tired, and bummed out that a two-hour hike turned into a four-and-a-half-hour hike would be very British, as they say. (Read: understated.)

We were damn frustrated, tired, and bummed. Some harsh words were exchanged. Blame was cast. Trying times were these.

Every couple goes through arguments. It’s natural. Add sweat, burning quads, fatigue, and getting lost for four-and-a-half hours, and you’ve got a melting pot of irritation.

Then we happened upon a clearing on the side of a hill. There was a couple lying on a blanket. The view was magnificent. The Mediterranean Sea graced us with her gleaming beauty.

There was an old man with a helmet and a parachute standing there too.

A family of American tourists showed up at that point. One of them motioned to the old man. “Are you going to jump?” she asked.

He looked at her, not quite understanding. “You jump-ay?” she asked again. “Jump-ay?” she repeated, louder this time.

He seemed to get the gist of her words and nodded.

“Wow.”

We all sat back as he geared up, prepared his chute, waited for the right wind, and took off. He ran towards the edge of the cliff and jumped. The parachute caught air and bellowed behind him. He floated in slow, graceful circles over the shoreline. I took a deep breath and tried to imagine how amazing the old man must be feeling.

“Wow, imagine how amazing he must be feeling,” Mia echoed. I looked at her and smiled. I took a picture of her at that moment, because she had that cute grin that I love so much.

I held her from behind. “Who would have guessed we’d see an old man jump off a cliff with a parachute here in Cinque Terre, huh?”

She nodded. I could feel her smile. “Ah. The adventures of Mike & Mia…” she said.

We’ve used that line before. Many times before. During trying times and amazing times, but especially during trying times. After we got lost and found our way to that sanctuary back there? We said it.

And after we left the clearing and finally made it to Vernazza? We said it. Then, when we realized it was too late in the afternoon to hike to Corniglia, so we took the train instead, despite telling ourselves we wouldn’t wuss out and do that? We said it. Then, when we finally made it to the last two towns, Manarola and Riomaggiore, before nightfall? We said it. And when we had a delicious dinner at Riomaggiore, then missed the train by a few seconds, only to realize the next train was three hours later and we had to wait in the freezing darkness of the night in our sweaty, dirty clothes? You can bet we said it.

(Cue wavy image that signals the end of a memory sequence.)

The friendly American at the next table was absolutely right. Traveling can be a great test of a relationship. Our trek through Cinque Terre was a perfect test. It was difficult, frustrating, and required a lot of compromise, brainstorming, patience, creative thinking, and trust on both our parts.

It was during our conversation with the friendly American that I realized how powerful those simple words were. “The adventures of Mike & Mia.” It was a way to defuse painful situations – as well as to remind us that we were in it together. I think we first said those words while we were dating. Perhaps it was on a hike where we got lost somewhere. And somehow, it stuck.

We held our glasses up and cheered the friendly American. “To Italy!”

I turned to Mia and added, “And to the adventures of Mike & Mia!”


May
8
2011

The Adventures of Mike & Mia: The Fountains of Brian

“I’m going to call them Le Fontane di Brian.”

Brian laughed. “They’re not that impressive. But they’re good.”

He rounded a tight corner, then sped up the hill. The countryside was scenic and expansive, the kind you see on an Italian postcard. With the sun shining and clouds wispy, it was a glorious day for a Tuscan drive.

Just 25 minutes north of Florence, Brian’s hometown of Fiesole had been a suggestion of our hotel concierge. He said it had fantastic views of Florence from the north – while the Giardini di Boboli (Boboli Gardens) provided fantastic views from the south. The concierge was definitely right.

I had no idea Brian lived here though. Fiesole was a coincidental suggestion. “It would be funny if you lived in Fiesole,” I told him when he picked us up.

“Oh, I do,” he laughed. We caught up on old times, since it’s been years since we’ve worked together. Then we were off to a view of Fiesole known only to the locals. Such as: The Fountains of Brian.

“The ground here is saturated with water,” he told us. “When it rains, much of the water pools into natural reservoirs and springs. A long time ago, the people here learned where those springs are and tapped into them. Now, you can get really fresh water from those fountains. They’re perfectly drinkable and potable.”

We shifted into low gear to climb another precarious hill, then served to the right to avoid hitting an oncoming car. Brian didn’t bat an eye or stop talking, like a near-miss from a blind hill was an everyday event in Italy. And from the cars we’ve seen so far, that must definitely be true.

“Here’s one,” he said as we pulled up to a monastery at the top of the hill. “Monte Senario. This is still an active church. See all the cars here?”

Indeed, the small parking lot was full of families trekking up the stairs to the church.

“There’s probably a sermon here tonight.”

We walked around the structure to take in the glorious views. Below us were the lush hillsides of Tuscany, dotted with vineyards, olive trees, and other native vegetation.

“And here it is. The first fountain.”

It was a nondescript spigot protruding from a wall. Below it was a stone basin. Unlike Rome, water wasn’t continuously pouring out.

“The monks who first built this fountain believed it was the freshest water in the land. If you talk to the old guys here, they’ll tell you the same thing.”

He reached over, turned on the spigot, and leaned down to take a long drink. Then he beckoned us to do the same. I drank the icy cool spring water and it was oh-so refreshing.

We took a few scenic photos and jumped back in his car. “The next fountain is tougher to find. I happened to stumble upon it while I was biking these roads one morning. They aren’t on any map and you would never know it was special unless someone who lives here pointed it out.”

We served left and right to navigate the hills and oncoming traffic. I glanced in the back seat to check on my motion-sickness-prone wife. Mia gave me a weak smile and continued looking out the window at a stable focal point to minimize her queasiness.

After some twists and turns, we ended up at another nondescript spigot and stone basin by the side of the road. The only thing significant about it were the three old men filling up several gallons of empty containers with the water.

“These old guys love this water. They come here and bring gallons back home for drinking and cooking.”

We decided to drive on to the third fountain, since this one had a long queue.

“I was talking to one of those guys and he told me this is the best water of Fiesole. Other guys will swear that the monastery’s water is the best. Yet others totally believe the third fountain beats these two. Everyone has a favorite and says theirs is the best.”

“Do they taste any different?” I asked.

“Not that I can tell. One guy swore that this second one is the freshest. He said he weighed it and found it to be the most pure and unspoiled by minerals. How the heck he weighed water, I don’t know. The difference might have been a few grams if he was really scientific about it, but I don’t know about that.”

Mia and I laughed. “I guess that’s one way to determine a water’s quality,” I said.

We got to the bottom of a hill and pulled over in a shady spot. The third nondescript spigot and basin rested alongside a patch of wet mud. Brian leapt out and hunched over to drink from the spigot.

As Mia and I took turns tasting this fresh spring water, he continued. “One of old guys said this fountain will make you pee better. He claimed he pees so much better after drinking this water.”

“I don’t have to pee yet, but when I do, I’ll see if it’s a better pee than usual,” I replied.

Brian laughed. “What’s great is these fountains always have cold water. After biking on a hot day, these fountains are great. Whether or not they make you pee better, they are damn refreshing.”

We wiped our chins and stood around for a moment, taking in the clean Tuscan air and crisp chirps of nearby birds.

“Anyone have to pee yet?” Brian asked.

Mia and I looked at each other. “Nope, not yet.”

“Okay then.” We got back into his car. “So those were the fountains.”

“Le Fontane di Brian,” I said.

And later, back at the hotel, I think I really did pee better.


May
1
2011

The Adventures of Mike & Mia: Serendipitous Glass

The tour guides did not look like what we were expecting at all.

There were two of them by the dock, waiting for our taxi acquei (water taxi) to arrive. Once we stopped, they helped us up from the boat. I didn’t say they weren’t nice, just not what we expected.

They wore fancy brand-name suits. Had shiny Italian leather wingtips. Slicked-back hair. Neatly-trimmed goatees. Rings and jewelry. And piercing eyes behind smiles that could probably put a bullet in your head as easily as a handshake.

“Mafioso,” I thought as quickly as I felt guilty of the prejudiced thought. But I would totally understand if you saw the same look on a Chinese guy and thought, “Triad.”

“Welcome to Signoretti,” one of the guides said. “I will be the guide for the English-speaking group.” I heard the other guide speaking in French to another group of passengers. “We are one of the oldest glass artisans on Murano. Today, I will be giving you a tour of our glass-making facilities. Please, right this way.”

Mia and I, along with a British family of three, followed him into the impressive Signoretti building.

Inside were several hot furnaces. Half a dozen artisans danced around with poles that were shoved into said furnaces. The tips of the poles were bright orange molten glass.

The guide described the glass making process. It was one that involved design, production, finishing, polishing, and even packaging & shipping. He made a
point to say there were six artisans involved with just one piece of glass art. “Remember, the price you pay, while at a discount because you are purchasing right here in the factory, is to provide for the salaries of six artisans.”

“Now, they will make a Ferrari horse to show you how a sculpture is made.” He motioned to one of the artisans with a hot pole of molten glass. “Get your cameras ready.”

The artist carefully extruded the head, then the legs of the horse from the molten core. He made it seem so easy. We clapped and cheered.

“Now, I will take you to our showroom. Come.”

We walked up a flight of stairs as another tour group entered the factory. The showroom was an impressive display of glass art. Beautiful chandeliers, elegant vases, magnificent wine glasses. Intertwined with colors and curved in seductive shapes, each was a delicate work of art.

And, expensive. Other tours were in the showroom too. I heard some of them asking about prices. “That one is only 100,000 euros,” one tour guide said. “It took several days to make. Very difficult. Very unique. You will not find anything like it anywhere else in Murano.”

That’s when it hit me. “I don’t think they’re tour guides,” I whispered to Mia. “I think they’re salespeople giving tours. It’s like a timeshare sales session. Our hotel probably has an arrangement with these guys. They give us a free tour, pay for our water taxis, and try to sell us on their glassware. They’ll probably try to sell us hard by the end of the tour.”

However, I was wrong. Our slick salesman probably realized we weren’t going to unload a few grand on their merchandise. “Would you like to see any more, or are you interested in smaller pieces?” he asked us.

“Let’s see the smaller pieces,” I said.

He whisked us into a room not unlike a typical Murano glass souvenir shop in Venice. Then he shut the door and was gone. Perhaps to give another tour/sales session.

We wandered out of the complex and into a residential-looking part of Murano. After a few dead-ends, we began following a group of tourists.

“You know what would be a better sales technique?” Mia said. “If he didn’t just throw us out once he realized we weren’t going to buy anything. What if we were to tell our friends about them, and our friends buy something? Or what if we returned someday, after we could afford it, and brought something?”

I nodded. “Totally agree. Sometimes your customers make your best salespeople.”

“I know, right?” she huffed. Then something caught Mia’s eye. “Oh, can we look at that?”

It was a tall glass sculpture in a small enclosed garden. Above the doorway was the sign, “Simone Cenedese Gallery.” She took a picture of the beautiful sculpture, then peeked inside the gallery.

“Should we go in?” she asked. The tourists we were following were disappearing around a bend.

I looked into the gallery. “Sure, why not.” We walked in.

The glass art was exquisite. Contemporary. Grand.

A salesperson came over. “Buongiorno,” he greeted. “Are you looking for chandeliers or souvenirs?”

“Uh…” came my quick-witted reply.

“Our house specializes in chandeliers. We don’t make much else that is smaller.”

“Oh, I see. We are just looking for souvenirs.”

“You will find many beautiful souvenirs here in Murano. But while you are here, please enjoy and take a look at our art as well.” With a smile, he took a step backwards and left us to browse.

We slowly walked down a hallway adorned with majestic works of art. Mia stopped at one and her mouth opened. “This is so beautiful. Wow. I wonder how they did this.” It was a curved slab of clear glass with what looked like organic leaves or shells inside of it.

“That,” said the salesperson who seemed to materialize right behind us, “is a compound of minerals sealed inside the glass. It is our master’s own formula, so you won’t see this anywhere else in Murano.”

“It’s beautiful,” Mia said.

“Would you like to see more of our master’s work? Come, let me show you our gallery. Come.”

I hesitated, not wanting to face another sales session. But something about his manner was more inviting than the last guy. Also, at the very least, all we had to say was, “No thanks,” and walk away.

The gallery was as contemporary as the art. Lighted glass floors. White walls. It wasn’t overwhelming like the first place. Fewer pieces were on display. More like an art gallery than a showroom.

“Here,” the salesperson said to Mia. He brought out a piece similar to what she was admiring in the hallway and placed it on a lighted table. “Walk around it and see how the curves of the glass change the view of the shapes inside. It is a very fluid piece.”

She ooo’ed and ahh’ed. On another table was a book with the name Simone Cenedese. “Is this the master?” I asked.

“Ah, yes!” he said with energy. “Simone Cenedese. He is one of the youngest artists in Murano, born in 1973. His work is very modern. His youthful eye brings a new style to this ancient practice.”

He flipped through the book. “One of his sculptures is outside at the end of the canal. You should go take a look later. It is very beautiful.”

He stopped at a page with a photo of the master himself. “Wow, he looks very young,” Mia exclaimed.

“Would you like to see the master at work?”

Mia and I looked at each other. “Sure!” we said together.

“Come.” The salesperson led us through another hallway and down some stairs. We were greeted with several furnaces and artisans with poles of molten glass. It was similar to what we saw earlier, except there was no tourist barrier between us and the artisans. We were allowed much closer. Almost too close. The heat was pretty intense. I could almost feel the suffocating heat on my cheeks.

The salesperson explained the glassmaking process. The sand goes into the furnace. Each furnace is a different color. An artisan dips the pole into the a furnace to get another color onto his piece. All follow a prepared design. It was more information than the last tour had offered.

“Ah, here is the master himself,” the salesperson said. We turned around and saw Cenedese cooling off a pole with molten glass. He looked up for a second, then returned to his work. There was a fierce look of determination on his face. We held our breath as he carved and molded the glass.

After a few moments, the salesperson said, “Come, come.” He whisked us into another room. “Making glass art is a lot of work. What you saw is just the beginning. The glass also needs to be sanded, polished, and finished.” He motioned to tables and tables of glass, all of it dusty. Artisans were sanding down the glass pieces, leaving behind a film of dust everywhere.

It was so dirty and messy that we got the feeling this wasn’t a common place for gawking tourists.

I peered closely at a pile of glass tubes with circles drawn on them. “Those are the imperfections in those glasses,” said the salesperson. “I can’t see them, but they, they can tell. To the trained eye, there are dozens of imperfections at this stage. The artists will continue to polish the glass into each piece is perfect.”

The next room was the packaging & shipping room. Boxes and boxes filled with styrofoam peanuts were scattered about. Workers were wrapping pieces of glass carefully in paper. I pointed at a complex-looking chandelier. “Are instructions included?”

“Oh yes. Instructions are included with each piece. They are not hard to put together. Very easy.” He walked over to another chandelier. “See, each piece is simply screwed in,” he said as he unscrewed a glass tube off, just like an ordinary lightbulb.

After that, we exited the workshop. “I am glad you got to see the master at work. If you would like to make a purchase, I will be happy to help. If not, please enjoy Murano island. Look around at the other glass sculptures. You will see that Simone’s art is unique. It is unlike any other art on this island. He has a very distinctive style. Please, enjoy.”

He smiled warmly. We replied with lots of “grazie’s” and “thank you’s.”

As walked out of the gallery, we turned to each other. “Wow, what a cool experience,” Mia declared. “How nice of him too. He probably knew we weren’t going to buy anything, yet he gave us a full personal tour and even showed us the master at work. And all without the pressure of purchasing. Now that is a fantastic sales technique! We totally can’t afford anything in there, but as soon as we can, I want to come back and buy something from them.”

“And tell all our friends about them,” I added. She nodded.

We smiled to each other. I took her hand and we started down a row of souvenir shops, noting how none were quite as beautiful as the art we saw in the Simone Cenedese Gallery.


Apr
24
2011

The Adventures of Mike & Mia: Chips in the Rain

The night sky dazzled for an instant. “Did you see that?” Mia asked.

I looked out the window. “No, what was it?”

“I think I just saw lightning,” she whispered.

We stared out the dark, foggy glass for a few moments. The vaporetto (water bus) wobbled as a taxi acquei (water taxi) sped by.

Suddenly, the black Venetian night blazed. But just for an instant. “Damn, you’re right. That was lightning.”

“The hotel guy said it might rain tonight…”

I nodded and squeezed her hand. Silently, I hoped it would be a quick rain. Or, that we at least wouldn’t be caught in it. Too bad I didn’t knock on wood.

It took the vaporetto nearly half an hour to reach Zilette. The bus lurched side to side before crashing into the dock. It was a familiar crash. Every vaporetto seemed to dock boisterously. Tonight’s crash had more vigor though. Perhaps from the impending storm.

We carefully raced off the vaporetto and were greeted with droplets of water. “Damn,” I muttered. “It’s raining.”

The dock was empty, save us disembarking passengers. The fondamenta (street along a canal) was deserted too. Visitors and locals alike were no doubt seeking shelter.

With the other passengers, we spirited away. “Let’s go that way,” I pointed to the left, and off we went.

The rain was getting heavier. Droplets turned into blobs. The sprint was a feat of speed and balance on the slippery cobblestones.

At the end of the fondamenta was a restaurant with two suited staff members pushing wet tables and chairs under an awning.

“What was the place called?” Mia asked.

“It’s in a hotel called Cipriani. Hotel Cipriani.”

She ran up to one of the men. “Scusi, dove Hotel Cipriani?”

“Down this path. Make a right at the end, then a left,” he said in English.

“Grazie!” We hurried off.

The path was under a cover, so we slowed down and shook off the rain. We looked at each other and laughed. “We’re almost there!” I declared. Again, no knock on wood.

The path ended at a service entrance. To the hotel, presumably. A lady stood under a nearby doorway, smoking. She watched us peek into the service entrance, then to the right, as the staff member had said.

To the right was a garden of some kind. There were no lights. It was awash in darkness and rain. We hesitated, looked at each other, then dashed into the rain.

The path forked. We ran down the left fork just as another flash of lightning ignited everything around us. It was a beautiful garden. Too bad it was too dark, cold and wet to enjoy it.

There was a well-lit glass door to our left. We ran over and tried to open the door. Locked. Two ladies appeared and stared at us for a moment. One of the shook her head and said something in Italian. I imagine it was, “We’re closed.”

I silently hoped she’d look at us two soaked tourists, take pity, and let us in. But alas, she only continued to shake her head.

The path near the garden continued on a little ways. We sprinted back on it and over to another door. It was the entrance to… a hotel! Quite a grand hotel too. It had a fancy entrance and modern decor.

But… it was not Hotel Cipriani. We wandered inside anyways, shaking off the water from our soaked heads.

“Scusi,” I asked the desk clerk. “Dove Hotel Cipriani?”

“Hotel Cipriani,” he repeated. “Exit that door, turn right, walk down the path, you will see it.”

“Grazie.” We looked out the door. It was the same door in which we came. The rain was pouring now. I wasn’t eager to take a Venetian shower, but we had dinner reservations and were starving. We looked at the rain, then at each other. Silently, we agreed that we had come too far to give up now. Back into the rain we went.

Following his directions led us back to the service entrance and covered path. Frustratingly, we examined and reexamined the service entrance. Could it really be a hotel entrance… disguised to look like a… service entrance?

No such luck. We decided to systematically explore every doorway we could find in this area. There was a set of steps and a doorway to our left. Nope. Another to our left. Nope. One behind some bushes to our right. Nope. Another to our right. Nope.

Back out in the dark garden was the right fork. Could that be it? The rain was still showering Venice. Dripping wet, we looked at each other, sighed, and ran down that fork.

It led down another dark path lined with tall bushes. And it was a little spooky in the dark rain. But it led to a glass door that was… open.

Inside was a small stairwell, a desk, a closet, and a vacuum cleaner. Otherwise, it looked strangely unoccupied.

“Scusi?” we shouted. “Scusi?”

No answer. We peeked around. It didn’t feel like a hotel entrance at all. But it was dry.

“Hey, look what I found,” Mia said. She pulled out an umbrella. We looked at each other. “Do you think they’ll mind? I feel bad.”

“So do I.” I looked out at the rain. “But we could really use it. The rain is getting heavier.”

She nodded. “But I feel bad. I hope we don’t get bochi (bad karma) for this.”

I opened the door and opened the umbrella. “Grazie,” we both said to the empty room, then headed into the rain again.

The umbrella helped immensely. We explored the black garden as much as we could. There were no other doorways save the ones we already tried.

We made our way back to the covered path. Slopping wet, shivering, and starving, we stared down the covered path in silence.

“I’m hungry,” Mia whispered.

“Me too.”

We slowly walked down the path, triple-checking each door. I saw the smoking lady behind one of them. She came out to greet us.

“Scusi, parley ingles?” I asked.

“Little,” she replied, making a pinching motion with her fingers.

“Dove Hotel Cipriani?”

She pointed behind us. Back towards the garden. I heard Mia sigh.

“Try asking about the restaurant itself,” Mia suggested.

“Dove Chips?” I asked.

“Ah, Chips.” She pointed in the other direction, back to the beginning of the covered path and the vaporetto.

“Grazie.”

We started down the path again. “Maybe we missed it when we first walked through here?” Mia asked. Each door was knocked on or opened. Nothing.

We reached the mouth of the covered path and Mia peeked up a small stairwell. I looked at a door to our right.

On the door was the name: Chips. Our restaurant! “Mia! I found it!”

She darted over and we walked in. Immediately, we recognized two of the suited staff members. They were the guys pushing wet tables and chairs under an awning.

If only we had asked them about the restaurant name, Chips, and not the hotel I thought it was in, Hotel Cipriani…

We finally got to our table, only half an hour late for our reservation. Exhausted, we looked at each other and laughed. “Ah, the adventures of Mike & Mia,” I sighed. We shook our heads and shared a hearty laugh.

After dinner, we left the umbrella behind, hopefully to help the next wayward visitor lost in the Venetian rain.


Apr
17
2011

The Adventures of Mike & Mia: When in Rome

Out of the major tourist cities of Italy, Rome is perhaps my least favorite. (Friends tell me Milan is worse; I haven’t been there yet, and perhaps shouldn’t.) It has the most well-known sights and attractions, and indeed contains a lot of glorious Italian and Roman history. But for me, cities like Florence and Venice have a lot more old-world charm.

Despite that sentiment, we had on a pair of great big goofy grins as we left the train at Roma Termini and started walking to our hotel.

We dropped off our stuff and planned our first goal of the day: food. It was 11:00am and we were famished. Our hotel concierge suggested a nice little trattoria a few blocks away. We started off immediately.

Unfortunately, our American sense of immediate convenience has some learning to do. Tip: most restaurants don’t open up for lunch until 12:30pm.

With grumbling stomachs, we wandered to a nearby caffe and dined on paninis. I don’t know if it was our starvation or what, but those paninis were damn good. We later learned that this caffe was a popular night spot.

Satiated, we marched towards Colosseo (the Colosseum). By midday, the tourists were out enforce. Our guidebook warned that the line into the Colosseum might be long. And long it was.

“Um, let’s try the Foro Romano (Roman Forum) first,” I suggested. Mia nodded. And lo and behold, no lines. The ticket we purchased there also allowed entrance to the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and (Palatino) Palatine Hill. Happy day! Tip: buy a ticket at the Roman Forum instead of the Colosseum.

The sights of ancient Rome are vast. There’s a grand beauty in these relics of a once-great nation. There’s also lots of walking. Lots of it. Tip: wear comfortable shoes.

One of the Roman’s most significant contributions to the world are their aqueducts. These aqueducts bring drinkable spring water into the city, even today. You’ll find fontanelle (little fountains) throughout the city, which are great for thirsty tourists on long walks. There are a few of these in the ruins of ancient Rome too. Tip: bring a reusable travel water bottle.

The afternoon ended with the Pantheon. Then hunger returned. All this walking was shifting our metabolisms into high gear. Around 6:00pm, we decided to return to the trattoria that our hotel had recommended earlier. And, oh, look, they’re closed again. Tip: most restaurants don’t open until 7:00pm or 8:00pm.

This time, we decided to wait. And the trattoria was worth it. I’m sometimes suspicious of recommendations from hotels, because I can’t help but wonder if there is some kind of commercial arrangement between the two – as I’ve seen fairly often in the States. But all of the recommendations we’ve gotten have been fantastic. Bravissimo to these hotels.

Italy is known for lots of things, least of all, their delicious wines. Every trattoria presented us with daunting wine lists. From what I’ve read, their house wines are generally great, or at least a big step above the house wines we get in the States. Plus, they are much cheaper than those on wine lists. This won’t apply to all trattoria’s, but will for most. Tip: ask for the trattoria’s house wine.

Being the light-weights that we are, the wine always knocked us out for the night. We had wine every night, so hopefully we’ll return with a high alcohol tolerance.

The next morning was the regal Vatican City. We woke up a bit late – due to said wine & alcohol tolerance – so we decided to see it late in the afternoon. During midday, the lines at Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square) are atrociously long. Like a hour or two, especially on nice days. Tip: visit Vatican City early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid long lines.

The Basilica is a glorious wonder. But not everyone got to go inside and see it. A pair of Asian American girls were rejected because they were not appropriately dressed – the strict dress code includes no shorts or skirts above the knees, and no bare shoulders and arms. Tip: dress conservatively when visiting Vatican City.

After the Basilica, we toured the tombs and walked up the narrow, winding, slanted staircases up to the cupola. If you’re up for the nearly 500-step climb, you’ll be greeted with a grandiose view of the dome interior and a panoramic view of Vatican city.

Unfortunately, we forgot to visit the Musei Vatican (Vatican Museum) & Capella Sistina (the Sistine Chapel). We headed back the next day, but it was closed. Tip: take note of when the destinations are open or closed.

That last lesson concluded our trip in Rome. Soon, we were back at Termini Roma and off to our next city. Grazie for the grandeur, Rome. And for all the lessons learned.


Mar
20
2011

The Future of Education

I have three broad hopes for the future of education. And I specifically mean the education of children, as opposed to adults (which has a different set of requirements & traits).

Personalized

In the future, education should be personalized to each student. Every child learns at a different pace, and through different means. Some are visual learners. Some are auditory learners. Some are experiential learners. Most are some combination of various types. It is important to understand each child and teach them appropriately. I’ve found that most experienced teachers pick up on such individual preferences already, so it’s not a matter of doing some psych profile on each new student. General interactions throughout the school year naturally offer these insights.

Personalized education doesn’t mean the learning process should be slow, however. Proper education must be challenging and push students forward with high, yet realistic expectations. But the right amount of push should be tailored to each child. Push too lightly with some, and they’ll get bored. Push too hard with others, and they’ll get get lost and perform poorly.

Emotional & Social

In the future, education should incorporate emotional intelligence and social intelligence, in addition to academic intelligence. Children should be taught to interact with one another for a common goal, like group projects. They should learn how to compromise, how to listen, how to lead, and how to fail. These projects should encompass a range of lessons, from straight-forward problems with definite answers, to complex problems that require creative solutions.

Admittedly, there are logistical challenges here. Personalizing a child’s educational pace and teaching them group interaction means, at some point, pooling students at similar paces together. That’s helpful for individual exercises, but shouldn’t be the model throughout the school year. Grouping students together can inadvertently form groups like “the stupid kids” and “the smart kids.” Students will pick up on separations like this. They key, I suspect, is to keep the groups mixed up. Pair some of the fast learners with the slow learners. Have the students mentor and teach each other.

The personalized education can come outside of group activities, where teachers provide more attention or support for slow learners.

Parental Involvement

Education doesn’t begin in a school, and it can’t end in a school. Children are learning as soon as they are born. A majority of their lives is spent not in school, but at home with their families. That is where they are learning some of the most important lessons of their lives.

Although there are socio-economic barriers for some families, it must be a priority. I don’t know how a single mother with two jobs can do this realistically, but this should be a goal. Without a supporting environment, children can easily pick up bad habits, unproductive behaviors, and other mental pathologies that can and will erase all the education they get at school.

I would love to see a program aimed not just at children, but at parents as well. Some parents, whether they admit it or not, simply don’t know how to be a supporting parent. Others have no one to turn to. Yet others have differing opinions on how to be a good parent (which is always a touchy subject). Yet, there are some fundamental truths that can be taught to all parents.


Mar
13
2011

On Obedience and the Sendai Earthquake in Japan

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Oh, sure, sure. We have tsunamis in Hawaii all the time, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. I feel so bad for the people in Japan though. What a horrible earthquake, yea?”

“Yea, it’s horrible…” I switched from the phone to my earpiece. “Do you know anyone in Japan? Distant relatives or anything?”

“Oh, no, no. Our family came here so many generations ago that we’ve lost touch with any distant relatives who might be here.”

“That’s good.”

“The news said almost a thousand have died, yea?”

I rubbed my eyes. “Yea…”

“Could have been so much worse though.”

“What do you mean?”

“Did you hear how orderly the Japanese were when the emergency alarms sounded?”

“No…”

“The Japanese, you know, are very obedient, yea? Our neighbors were telling us how hundreds of Japanese heard the emergency alarms and started evacuating. No one stayed in their homes or anything like that. They just up and left.”

“Wow, that probably saved a lot of lives.”

“Yea! And you know what the locals here did?”

“What?”

“Went surfing!”

We chuckled. “Surfing. Well, can’t blame those Hawaiian boys, huh? When they hear that waves are coming, they gotta surf ‘em.”

She continued laughing. “So foolish! Not everyone did that of course. Our neighbors down the street went out to their boat and took it out to sea.”

“Out to sea? In a tsunami??”

“Yea, that’s what you do. They ride it out in their boats.”

“That’s insane!”

“It’s not that bad. The waves, you know, they’re not so bad out in sea. Our neighbor even told us it was beautiful seeing all these boats out there with their lights on, bobbing up and down.”

“I would get seasick.”

She laughed. “These are fisherman. They are used to this.”

“Well, I’m glad none of them were hurt.”

“No. But imagine if that earthquake hit Hawaii? And alarms sounded? You think everyone would be so obedient? Some go to their boats like they should, yea? And others, they go surfing.”

“American culture isn’t as respectful of authority as Japanese culture, I guess,” I shook my head.

“Yea. No, it isn’t. That’s probably what saved so many lives too.”

I scratched my chin and paused for a moment. “At the same time,” I eventually replied. “America’s individualism can be a good thing if the leaders are corrupt. Blind obedience probably saves lives in an urgent disaster if the person giving the orders is correct. But if that person is incorrect, it’s probably better to question authority.”

“Yea, yea, that’s true. And you know, it’s a good thing Japan is so used to earthquakes and tsunamis. The emergency people, they know exactly what to do. It’s a good thing their people listened to them. The emergency people know their jobs well!”

I nodded. “Yea, no doubt. And aren’t the buildings in Japan among the most earthquake-proof too?”

“Oh, sure, sure. To those poor people, earthquakes are a fact of life, yea?”

“Yup.”

“Oh, and you too!”

“Huh?”

“You’re in California! Don’t you have earthquakes all the time too?”

“Oh yea, that’s right.”

“So are you going to blindly obey your emergency people?”

“Heh, I suppose I’d better!”


Mar
6
2011

The Hidden Ring

I hid it behind a cabinet. Then in the closet. And inside an old suitcase. Basically, anywhere she couldn’t find it. And it was not easy.

She knew. I knew she knew. It was the way she’d drop hints and fish.

A DeBeers commercial would come on. “That’s a nice one. What kind of diamond do you think I’d like?” Sideways glance.

We’d walk by a Kay Jewelers. “This is a cheaper diamond store right? I never know which ones are more expensive and which ones aren’t.” Sideways glance.

A newly engaged friend would be sitting next to us. “What a beautiful ring!” Sideways glance.

To be accurate, she only partly knew. Soon after I asked her father for her hand in marriage, her Mom accidentally let it slip. Then her friends confirmed that, yes, I was ring shopping. What they didn’t know was whether or not I had made the purchase. Because then, it would be official. So that’s what she was not-so-subtly trying to fish out.

I held strong though. I would deftly change the subject or leave her with frustratingly vague answers, she told me later. Ha! Try and pull a fast one on me, huh? (The irony of me trying to pull a fast one on her and her finding out is not lost upon me.)

There was one particularly agonizing discussion, however. A new job opportunity presented itself to her. Although no one said this, we had a feeling that being married could increase her chances because it would make her appear more stable. More like someone who is ready to settle down in a new city, buy a house, and work there for a long time.

At least, that’s what she told me.

She was so visibly troubled by her chances that I tried hard to reassure her that, yes, you will be engaged soon. I have the ring and am just waiting for the right time. Don’t worry, everything will be okay!

It killed me to see her sad about possibly losing this opportunity. There were times I wanted to run to the hiding spot, pull out the ring, and propose to her right there and then. Seriously. I was this close to it.

But I held strong. I didn’t say anything. And later, she admitted that was another fishing tactic. There was truth to it, she just exaggerated her concerns to see if I would crack. Clever girl.

Then the day came. We took a trip to Hong Kong, then to Japan. I carried the ring in my pocket all the way there. Quite literally. There were some nights where I would sleep with it, because I was so paranoid about losing it. And no, it was not comfortable.

That little hunk of metal and stone traveled far. All the way from Orange County, California, to Kyoto, Japan. From being hidden behind shelves and boxes, to being there, in my hands, as I knelt down on one knee and proposed to my beautiful wife-to-be. And surprisingly, she didn’t know it was coming at all.


Feb
20
2011

Overheard on the Bus

Taking the bus is always an experience ripe with quotes. Here are a few choice lines I’ve overheard recently.

  • On the phone: “I’m going to kill you, bitch… Uh huh… Uh huh… Okay, love you too.”
  • Little kid to Mom: “I have to go! I have to go!” Pause. “Okay, I don’t have to go anymore.”
  • Woman to another woman: “I sexed him. Ohmigod, I mean I texted him. Autocorrect fail!”
  • Young guy to old guy: “Where do you go for good weed? Because Mom won’t let me at hers anymore.”
  • Guy to another guy: “Ohmigod I’m so gay, I want to jump the bus driver.”
  • Middle-aged woman in suit: “I can’t. It’s way past my bedtime. My Daddy will be angry.”
  • Teen on phone: “You are such a douche… No, it’s true. I’m a douche too.”
  • Guy to girl: “Everyone does it. I masturbated right before coming on the bus. Here, smell my fingers.”

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